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Online Reputations and Rabbit Holes

This week’s Persuasive Marketing blog comes from Pete Bartolik, a freelance writer/editor with whom I enjoyed and valued working with for many years.  I think you’ll see why.  Pete spent many years as a staff reporter and editor, followed by a virtual lifetime with a PR agency, before hanging out his own shingle.  Enjoy!

Back in 1987, Ray Donovan, previously Secretary of Labor under Ronald Reagan and the first sitting cabinet member to be indicted, was acquitted with other defendants from charges of fraud in construction contracts. Alluding to the flood of negative print and TV news stories that accompanied the original mob-tinged allegations, he was famously quoted saying, “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?”

In today’s hyperactive blog environment, he’d probably feel like he’s falling – perpetually – like Alice down the rabbit hole.

When print still dominated, we’d counsel clients to expect to be misquoted or taken out of context, and develop a thick skin – plus, even when a publication printed a correction, odds are it would be seen by just a fraction of those who had read the original.

Blogs have vastly ramped up the delivery speed of information, and misinformation, and it now persists for all digital eternity.  More concerning is that the information can take many twists and turns as it traverses the Net echo chamber.

As a youngster you may have played the party game that goes under a variety of names such as “Whisper” or “Telephone” in which successive players pass along a sentence or phrase. By the time the content reaches the last person and is announced to the group, it inevitably has acquired a much different meaning.

Electronic social networks can take the Whisper game to extreme heights, with the potential for truly harmful reputational damage. You can’t afford to shrug off misinformation because it becomes part of your online “permanent record.”

Extreme alertness is the order of the day. Once a story or comment appears online it can proliferate with rapidity and continually resurface as later bloggers pick up on the original. So the best way to blunt the impact is to communicate quickly and directly with the original author to try and correct the record.

The folks who do the blogging for a living are generally pretty reasonable. Many will quickly update their online posting, sometimes just replacing erroneous information, or at least noting a required correction. The sooner you’re able to do this, the more likely you are to limit parroting of the damaging content.

But, still, work on developing that thick skin. It’s inevitable that even after you’ve got the right information online, somewhere down the line someone is going to resurrect the original damaging content. And their blog will tell two people, and they’ll each tell two people, and so on and so on…

Welcome to the rabbit hole.

Keeping it Real: Social Media Success Tips for 2011 and Beyond

I recently dusted off my copy of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey and was refreshed again by the book’s tried and true principles.  In the new world of social networking with 24/7 Internet and mobile feeds screaming “look at me,”  “hear me,” “pay attention to me” − scattered with fake testimonials and other dubious schemes meant to manipulate Internet rankings, it can be difficult to believe that doing anything “old school” can reap results.  Forgive me for what may come off as preaching, but I, like Covey believe there are timeless truths that when properly applied to all facets of life will yield lasting results that don’t fade with the latest and greatest fad.

“Personality Ethic” is Covey’s description of the recent paradigm where success has become more of a function of personality, of public image, of the use of more shallow tactics to drive human reaction vs. applying genuine principles, what Covey calls “Character Ethic” to achieve results. Covey states, “the glitter of the Personality Ethic, the massive appeal, is that there is some quick and easy way to achieve quality of life − personal effectiveness and rich, deep relationships with other people− without going through the natural process of work and growth that makes it possible. It’s symbol without substance. It’s the ‘get rich quick’ scheme promising ‘wealth without work’.  And it might appear to succeed – but the schemer remains.”

I believe building fruitful relationships with media, bloggers, partners and customers is a process that inevitably takes an investment of time and effort to produce real and effective results. Ultimately it is Covey’s principle of “Character Ethic” rather than “Personality Ethic” that will help companies achieve superior long-term results in their marketing efforts.

If you decide to follow Covey’s higher path of “Character Ethic,” here are a few ideas on how to get started…

  • Build a Genuine List of Social Networking Followers/Fans: As much we’d all like to automate social networking – and there are great tools that help this process – beware of programs that build your follower/fan base on autopilot.  It’s really not about the number of followers, but rather their relevancy to your business and  loyalty that counts.  Taking shortcuts may seem to increase popularity more quickly, but thoughtful and personal communications build genuine relationships over time.

TIP:  When someone becomes a fan or follower, don’t send a self-serving automated message − take the time to send a personalized “thank you” note.  This is the opportunity to make a first impression that is meaningful and demonstrates your genuine interest in the person/company that is following you.

  • Toot Someone Else’s Horn: If possible, it seems the self-importance of individuals and companies has become even more inflated with the advent of social networking.  If you want to take a fresh approach, drop the “it’s all about me” approach and become the advocate of your industry peers and customers.  Use air time to promote their achievements and accomplishments in addition to your own.  In Charlotte’s Web, it was the “humble” pig that amazed everyone, won the blue ribbon, and saved his own life in the end.  Take the time to be genuinely concerned about your contacts and their specific interests and they will become faithful followers in the end.
  • Adopt a “Win-Win” Approach to Customer/Partner Relations: In my previous blog “Tried and True Strategies for a Prosperous 2010”, I noted that many companies fail to engage their customers and partners because they do not present a compelling value proposition. Self-centered requests often fail while successful programs are based on answering the customer’s question of “What’s in it for me?” Recently Google changed their search engine ranking criteria and added customer feedback as a key component of how companies are ranked.  As you can imagine, this has spawned a variety of schemes that help companies improve their online reputation with fake customer ratings and phony feedback.  Despite the allure of such shortcuts, the best strategies require you to build customer loyalty with good products and excellent customer service throughout the sales cycle.
  • Honest Communications, always:  Many companies have learned the hard way, but it’s always better to be honest about mistakes than to cover or lie.  And with online communities, chat boards, Twitter, citizen journalists, and the likes, it’s only a matter of time before truth gets out.  People and customers are much more forgiving of companies that are willing to air any dirty laundry before they find out themselves – everyone makes mistakes, so own up to them quickly.  A reputation of integrity and honesty will stand the test of time and companies that build their brand around such principles will be rewarded in the long run.

So may we all find the time during the holiday hustle and bustle to reflect on what “Character Ethic” principles we can apply that will help shape our businesses and lives to make 2011 the best year yet.

Facebook for B2B? Absolutely.

Not even the most entrenched Luddite in corporate America still questions the value of social networks for reaching the consumer market. How and what may still be up for debate, but it is no longer a question of if, merely when. Even small and local businesses are experimenting with Facebook and Twitter; the ubiquitous F and T are now found on even the smallest websites.

Business-to-business marketers, on the other hand, are still wondering whether consumer social networks like Facebook and Twitter have any place in the marketing plan.

B2B marketing generally organizes on vertical lines — even when products are horizontal. It’s just easier to understand and engage the customer when things are organized on the simple commonality of industry. As a result, it’s not that hard to make the leap to using social media tools within the company online presence by adding things like blogs, forums and wikis to the website. The B2B marketer gets the value of increasing customer engagement and loyalty.

Broad consumer social networks though? It’s not as easy to see how these might be useful in the business-to-business marketing context beyond personal connections and networking. That’s in part why the B2B answer to social networking is often “We are all on LinkedIn (or Twitter)”

In my opinion, B2B marketers should take a second (or third look) at Facebook as an element of their marketing plan. Here are a few reasons.

Go where the fish are
According to Facebook, the network has 300 million active users. About 50 percent of whom log in every day. Odds are that some — many — of your customers, prospects and other stakeholders are using Facebook. Perhaps not in a business context, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be interested in following your company news on Facebook. This is particularly true if your firm is a significant employer in a community or particularly active in an issue or cause. Your stakeholder is already “there” and the Facebook platform makes it easy to share the information with others.

Facebook Connect
Facebook Connect lets you use Facebook user credentials for secure areas on your site. One less password for the customer to remember. You can also allow the user to share back content on your site with his Facebook friends, exposing your material to the user’s friend base. Granted, Facebook isn’t the best place to share detailed product information and other material that just won’t be interesting to a broad base of consumers, but social initiatives, corporate materials, employee/community relations information. Why not Facebook?

Facebook Fan Page and Fan Box
You can use the Fan Box to display your Facebook Page activity on your website. This adds a dynamic social element missing on most B2B websites, which often resemble nothing so much as a corporate brochure.

Am I suggesting that every B2B marketer go out and set up a Facebook Fan Page? Not at all. But you should definitely do a little digging:

  • Are your customers on Facebook? Your competitors?
  • Are people discussing your products, your company, your issues, your competitors on Facebook?
  • Is your product a horizontal offering? Does it have both consumer and B2B applications?
  • Is your company a major employer in the community?
  • Does your company support a major charity or issue of interest to the community at large?

If the answer is yes to one or more of these questions, and you have or can create shareable content that lends itself well to the Facebook format, you may want to consider adding a Facebook Fan Page to your marketing mix.

Ignore Facebook at Your Peril

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

I’d thought of Facebook as a fun, entertaining time-waster, which would distract me from work I should be doing to take quizzes on what’s my favorite breakfast cereal or what kind of “Mad Men” character I would be. But I became impressed by the power of social media on June 25, the day Michael Jackson died.

On my Facebook News Feed popped up one post from a friend with a link to a report on the gossip site TMZ.com that Jackson was dead. Soon I was clicking my mouse with one hand and the TV remote with the other looking for confirmation. Mainstream media like CNN and MSNBC weren’t reporting he was dead; the only other Web sites reporting his death only cited the TMZ.com report. My News Feed soon filled with messages from others trading information on Jackson. It was like people gathering around radio sets when Pearl Harbor was bombed or around TVs when President Kennedy was assassinated. Only it was interactive.

I’d also heard that the initial reports of that airliner that splashed down in the Hudson River Jan. 15 came from Twitter.

So, the value of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms is clear; they can be a powerful way of disseminating information and, where a business is concerned, managing it.

My e-mail inbox is regularly filled with invitations to online webinars or real world seminars on marketing and PR via social networking. For instance, the Web site Mediabistro.com, which follows media news and offers professional training, invites people to view a panel discussion, “Social Media Essentials for PR.”

There is also evidence that embracing social media can help head off PR crises. The Wall Street Journal, in an Aug. 3 article titled “For Companies, a Tweet in Time Can Avert PR Mess,” recounts how three major companies – Ford Motor, PepsiCo and Southwest Airlines, averted PR problems by responding quickly on Twitter.

In the Ford case, the auto maker was being criticized online for forcing a fan Web site – TheRangerStation.com, dedicated to its compact Ranger pickup – to close. Ford’s director of social media, Scott Monty, immediately posted a Twitter message that he was looking into the matter, the Journal reported. He learned that Ford lawyers believed the site was selling counterfeit Ford parts bearing the company’s famous blue oval logo. Monty got the lawyers to back off forcing the site down if the site agreed to stop selling the fake parts. Problem solved.

And you don’t have to be a giant public company to use social media strategically. The New York Times reported July 29 on “Managing an Online Reputation” about how small businesses can set up Google Alerts to send them a message each time their company is mentioned in blogs or other Web sites.

To track Twitter mentions of the business, the Times story mentions TweetDeck, Twendz or Twitter’s own search function as resources.

While social media are still growing and evolving, their value is becoming clear, so scouring Facebook and Twitter may not be a time waster after all, but time well spent.

Traditional PR is Not Dead

The fat lady has yet to sing.

In the PR industry we’ve been hearing rumblings of the great shift from the reign of mainstream media to the rule of citizen journalists and social media channels. While we happen to believe that social media has forever changed the landscape of media relations (BTW, a great read is “Putting the Public back in Public Relations” by Brian Solis and Dierdre Breckenridge), we think the death knell may be more hype than reality.

Through a market research project, Attain Marketing has been in the trenches with senior IT buyers from a wide range of companies, including BofA, Phillips and First Data talking turkey about the IT buying process.

When asked how they first become aware of products and services, 95% of IT buyers interviewed said that trade publications were their number #1 resource. Although many did say they turn to IT peers to hear more about new products on the market, none acknowledged the use of social networking tools or communities as part of this process – right now. Analyst reports also topped the list of influencers, but mainly as part of the validation process.

So, here are some “old school” PR tips that never die:

  • Leverage key relationships with influential analysts and media. Schedule press and analyst “tours” in a 3-6 month cadence around company milestones.
  • Position your company/products around hot current events and submit articles to trade pubs for placement. Here are some good examples: PC World and Wireless Week contributed editorial
  • Always let your customers tell the story: editors are much more willing to write about a customer deployment than your product. Example: SC Magazine
  • Content is king. Journalists are looking for good stories. Period. See previous blog posts: Content is King and Some of My Best Friends are PR Weasels
  • PR campaigns should be integrated with marketing and lead generation efforts for maximum impact

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Every company should evaluate the unique landscape in the market it serves, but usually a blend of the old and new PR strategies is the best recipe for success.

Content is King

Amid the Roar of Social Network Spam, Good Content Still Rules

Tweet, tweet, tweet. Social media sites and associated spam are growing in volume every day as new-bees jump on the social networking bandwagon in hopes of growing their network and making a splash – or at least being heard.

The point is that we now have a very powerful platform to connect and express ourselves in ways that weren’t possible just five years ago. However, while we have this new distribution mechanism, these new channels don’t necessarily mean opportunity. It is still the potential to share ideas that matter which brings us a further opportunity.

From a business perspective, a large network is of no value unless the members of your network see value in what you bring to the table. By consistently providing value and conversing on a level of transparency and trust, the network will respond. Your network will grow, it will be much easier to spread content (with your name attached) and ultimately, bring in more customers.

Really, this is no different than the days of marketing and PR 1.0. Just because you could write a press release every week and blast it to a large network of media contacts did not guarantee anyone was listening. In fact it was strategic – and still is strategic – to release a steady stream of newsworthy announcements in a digestible timeframe. Otherwise, your communications will be seen as white noise and you’ll be labeled as one who provides little value no matter how many tweets and blogs you can churn out.

A person of few words is often still considered the wisest – and often the most respected.
The real goal, in my estimation, is to develop trust, build relationships, and earn the attention of people in our circles of interest. That’s what matters. Without providing value, internet channels are worthless.

Some key items to remember as you venture into the brave new world of social media and networking:

  • Develop a strategic and targeted list of contacts, blogs, communities and networks. These relationships should be nurtured at all costs – even in this crazy high-tech world, people are always behind the technology. It’s still easier to attract bees with honey than vinegar. 😉
  • Cultivate compelling content, always. Customer case studies and real world scenarios that tie to current events without stretching the truth are always more influential.
  • Spray and pray tactics (as I have heard recently, LOL) are a good back-up approach but should never replace targeted communications and lead generation efforts.

The bottomline is that you need a strategy that incorporates a blend of the old and new but always leverages compelling ideas and content for best results.