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For the past few months there seems to be growing buzz in social media (and communication) circles about employee advocacy. Companies like IBM, Target, Dell and Starbucks are sharing positive updates about their programs. Employee advocacy is clearly being pitched as the next big thing, and with good reason – as you can see later in this post. But despite the huge potential benefits to companies (and employees), staff advocacy programs are not a magic bullet, and not for every company. Like any other social media program, you need to be smart, realistic and deliberate about your approach. So I’ve developed a checklist of issues communication pros should carefully consider before they embark on an advocacy program.

Before I get to the checklist, let’s review a quick definition and look at the rationale for employee advocacy.

Employee advocacy is mobilizing trained employees to share company-approved content through employee-owned social channels to engage consumers, peers and family. (Italics are intentional, underlining critical elements of an advocacy program.) Advocates typically do not have social outreach as a formal part of their jobs (like subject matter experts who blog on the company’s behalf.) In essence, advocacy programs allow your employees to tell your company story.

As for the potential benefits of employee advocacy, they have been well documented and are backed by robust research and results. At its core employee advocacy helps amplify your marketing efforts, increasing the credibility, reach, audience and engagement well beyond levels for typical corporate outreach. This can translate into a boost in online profile, reputation and fan base. But the bigger payoff is through the potential for an increase in sales leads, revenue and profits. Enlisting your employees in an advocacy program can also help drive staff engagement, and given the stubbornly low engagement levels, that’s a very good thing.

Beyond the profile boost for your branded content – the explicit messages you are sharing – advocacy programs send powerful symbolic messages to both consumers and employees. For employees it says: your ideas matter, we trust you, we believe in our company and we support your personal brand. For customers it says: we’re part of the conversation, we live our values, we’re proud to tell our story, we trust and value our employees and we’re a leader.

So with all this promise, why shouldn’t companies start an employee advocacy right now…if they haven’t already? The short answer is they may not be ready. The list below provides a good template for readiness for an advocacy program.

  • Can you be authentic? – To be effective long-term, employee advocacy programs must authentically align with their culture, brand and employee interests. Authenticity is a central ethos of social media, with a premium on transparency and responsiveness. That means no hype, no fluff, no dishonesty and no hiding. Does your companies’ marketing and PR content truly align with these values?
  • Is your culture toxic? – Very low employee morale or engagement is not a good foundation for an employee advocacy program. Ask yourself if your employees are likely to be positive and supportive as online ambassadors? If you’re not sure, you need to fix your culture before you think about advocacy. It’s true that many companies start with small pilot programs, but author/pundit Jay Baer said it best: “If your employees aren’t your biggest fans, you’ve got bigger problems than social media.”
  • Do you have social infrastructure? – Though there are good technology platforms that companies can easily adopt to manage their advocacy programs, companies with limited or no social capability and/or cultural acceptance will have a much steeper learning curve and a tougher time driving adoption. It’s also important to have internal systems that allow (even foster) multi-directional dialogue and content sharing.
  • Is your social media policy overly complex or restrictive? – No matter how well you design and execute your advocacy program, it will lag if your social media policies confuse or inhibit your employees.
  • Is your content compelling? – Perhaps the biggest barrier to a successful advocacy program is stale, self-serving content. Boring is bad. Leading companies use a formula that emphasizes industry and employee-generated content (multi-media of course) over typical marketing content. In other words, treat this as a conversation and not a pushy hard sell – which is anathema in social media.
  • Do you recognize and value your employees? – Good advocacy programs do a great job of recognizing and rewarding participants. (IBM even ranks the most prolific and popular advocates.) Do you already have credible programs in place to recognize your staff? Are you willing to make your employees the stars of the program?
  • Will you be social in good times and bad? – Any social media program requires sustained commitment to be credible and relevant, and advocacy programs are no exception. Shutting down during a crisis will create a backlash and erode your credibility. Furthermore, your staff will likely want to have their voice heard in tough times.
  • Are you good at listening? – Beyond the marketing boost, a big advantage of employee advocacy programs is the acquisition of content-related data and insights on your customers and employees. If you are not already in the mode of listen-learn-adapt, however, these benefits will be lost on you.
  • Do you trust your employees? – The most important litmus test of any advocacy program is whether you trust your employees. The best programs assume their employees have good intentions, and give their staff plenty of leeway – including choosing the role and content that fits their skills and interest. Programs that are dictatorial or stifle creativity will not be successful. Monitoring and discipline should be a last resort, not a default out of the gate.

It’s likely true that a good advocacy program can actually help fix many of the issues listed above. But I would suggest you start with a strong foundation. Walk before you go social, as it were.

Over the past few years, I’ve often questioned why so many communication professionals – both in-house and in PR agencies – were slow and hesitant to adapt to the dramatic industry changes sparked by social technology. There are many logical explanations for this lag: caution about legal issues, concern about a public misstep, fears about rogue employees, a distaste for real (and potentially negative) interaction with consumers…the list goes on. But based on recent research I’ve seen the explanation may be more basic: most PR professionals simply don’t have the social media skills and expertise to be effective (or confident) advocates for change.

This excellent post by friend and former colleague Richard Binhammer provides a good summary of the skills gap in marketing and across the general US employee population. Indeed, the problem is not limited to communication professionals. However, this is where the problem is most acute and noteworthy, since our jobs dictate that we provide cogent, informed counsel and support on digital engagement with both external and internal audiences. By some estimates in these studies, only about 10 percent of workers truly understand digital technology well enough to incorporate that knowledge into their work and planning. For more background on the PR skill gap see this article and this study.

Even millennials, who tend to be much more tech-savvy than older workers and use most major social platforms every day, have their blind spots. Though younger workers have grown up with the mobile Internet and have likely posted most of their lives online, they lack the strategic savvy and broader perspective required to use their knowledge in a business context. Put another way, they understand the technology, but not the PR business. This article in Fortune provides a good snapshot of the millennial strengths and weaknesses.

All of this evidence reflects what I’ve seen over the past 10 or so years as both a communication executive and consultant. We are falling behind in a digital world. Badly. Events like SXSW, the tip of the spear in digital innovation, suggest that everybody is fully immersed in digital media and driving cutting-edge social media strategies in marketing, advertising and communications. But I don’t think the folks at SXSW reflect the average PR professional, or company – particularly outside the tech havens of Silicon Valley, Portland and similar global outposts.

Leaders who are socially savvy and proactive are extremely rare, the proverbial unicorn. A surprising number of communication teams seem to rely on one or two in-house digital gurus – typically social media managers, digital designers or marketing experts – who are often over-taxed and overwhelmed. Lacking adequate depth and breadth of critical social skills, many communication teams rely on a range of outside experts ranging across digital disciplines to cobble together programs: web design, platform vendor/technology, visual/video content, editorial content, social community management, research and analytics, and so forth. I’ve rarely seen all this requisite expertise housed within a PR agency or team, much less inside the same organization. Though the outsourced virtual “best team” approach may be effective in the short-term, it doesn’t support the efficient, dedicated work required to plan and execute a robust digital strategy.

There is urgent need to address this social skill gap; the credibility, relevance and effectiveness of the communication/PR business are at stake. The solutions are obvious, if not easy or inexpensive: training in social media history and skills; built-in time to participate in relevant seminars and meetings; progressive BYOD and social media policies; reverse mentorship programs; recruitment of tech-savvy professionals; mandatory boot-camps on digital metrics; and, alignment with related disciplines (i.e. digital design, intranet technology, social analytics, CRM.) Smart communication leaders will take steps to ensure they – and their teams – become the social media experts their clients expect and need to be successful in the digital age. Without making progress in the social skill gap, I fear PR may simply be pushed out by smart marketing or technology firms (and teams) who pull together the requisite social capabilities.

Over the past few months I’ve attended (mostly virtually) a number of webinars and conferences focusing on social analytics and business intelligence. The latest was the Social Intelligence Summit put on by the W20 folks in London. (Here is a good blog post on the session.) I always come out of these sessions really impressed, even dazzled, by the advances in technology and intellectual leadership at the cutting edge of social business. The big lesson for me from these sessions is that the digital world is – with few exceptions – transparent, observable and measurable, and we’re coming up with increasingly smarter ways to find, package and use the digital data.

It’s difficult to pull highlights from the sheer volume of notable observations and insights, but here are a few I’ve noted:

  • There are now a wide range of sophisticated, user-friendly tools to help organizations monitor, aggregate, analyze and report activity on the Web – including multi-media discussions occurring on social platforms;
  • Analytics software can now provide complex, real-time data and insights that allow organizations to monitor and adapt their outreach 24/7;
  • Smart companies have gone well beyond listening and engagement and are now using the data to understand their audience (and how their brand is performing) and gain intelligence to drive their business;
  • Powerful analytics are being used well beyond the basic objectives of marketing – to drive brand or product awareness, consideration and hopefully purchase – and are now helping to guide activities as varied as health planning, product development and even predictive consumer research;
  • There seems to be a shift in what companies measure, with some focusing well beyond the usual reach/share of voice/tone to issues like identifying and mobilizing small groups of influential advocates, or determining highly customized and protean media channel strategies;
  • Some of the most interesting and advanced analytics work seeks to link social data and insights with specific business processes, transactions and outcomes – and using the insights to adapt and improve related business results.

My initial thought coming out of these events is euphoria (and humility) at the incredible innovation and intellectual sophistication in social media circles, and appreciation so much of this information and technology is readily available for all to use. But inevitably there is a thud when I return back to reality with my own observations, projects and clients. The reality is what I hear in these conferences and webinars still seems like rarified air in my consulting environment, with most clients or peers I see still grappling to understand and implement even the most rudimentary social platforms and strategy. If anything, I feel the gap between the analytics gurus and many of the corporate leaders (and communication pros) I work with is getting wider. In effect, I see a few pioneers with one foot in the future, but many others with one foot firmly placed in the past.

Perhaps the largest gap, and opportunity, is inside the organization. Most companies have at least some commitment to monitoring external social conversations and using the resulting data and insights to direct their social strategy, if not their broader business. But it’s much more infrequent to find companies that deploy social technology inside their enterprise and actually monitor, measure and analyze all the data generated by their employees. And leveraging Intranet traffic metrics or annual engagement surveys does not count as a real-time, robust analytics strategy.

Think of the potential outcomes if companies started to aggregate and interpret all the data on or from their workforce. Those kind of insights would not only help to track and drive engagement – the priority for many HR leaders and employee communication executives – but also provide valuable information to positively impact business outcomes such as productivity, retention, safety and even customer service. I’m personally hoping the analytics gap closes soon. Otherwise leaders and communication professionals are leaving a lot on the table.

During SXSW a few weeks ago I had the good fortune of meeting a number of my former colleagues from Dell, where I worked from 2002 to 2006. During my stint there I had the incredible good fortune of working on the team that would design, develop and manage Dell’s then new – and since much lauded – social media program.

But our conversation didn’t dwell so much on the good old days as the realization that years later many companies are still hesitant to embrace, or even explore, the full potential of social media technology. This despite the dramatic increase in cheap, user-friendly technology to support everything from targeting to analytics to collaboration. In fact, outside of some perennial leaders – many of them in the technology industry – many organizations are still grappling with the same questions and fears we saw almost ten years ago. And this is particularly true of companies exploring a social strategy inside the enterprise. (As just one example of this slow going, the folks at Prescient Digital estimate that only 4% of companies have a truly social intranet system.) After comparing notes about our respective clients and consulting gigs, we concluded many of the original arguments, tools and basic social media models we developed in those early days were still relevant, and very much in demand.

So why the uneven, reluctant adoption of new approaches and technology?  While many have focused on potential fixes for PR teams and their clients (check out this excellent blog post by my former Dell colleague Richard Binhammer) I am more curious – and perplexed – about the barriers to progress in PR. Why is a business filled with smart , accomplished consultants so slow to adapt? Based on my perspective the past few years, I offer a few suggestions:

  • Bunker Mentality – There’s no way to escape the dramatic tectonic shifts in new technology and the related impact on entire industries, including news media, advertising, retail, music, and not least communications and PR. The dizzying pace of new products and functionality makes it even harder to keep up with change. While some organizations seem invigorated by these shifts and flood of new opportunities, many have reacted with grudging, superficial tactics without changing their strategy or business model. In many ways, they are still in denial.
  • Inertia – The sad reality in any corporate setting (indeed, perhaps even in human nature itself) is that there is very strong momentum for doing things the way they’ve always been done, particularly in times where staffs are lean and driven by short-term objectives. And despite all the hype around innovation and risk, very few organizations have cultures that encourage, or even allow activity outside the norm. Often, companies need a major event like a new strategy or leader to encourage a shift in direction. Without that, it’s difficult to change old habits.
  • Functional Insularity – Functional departments that would typically help spark and support innovation and change – or at least be the sources of new ideas and information – are often the most insular, reactive ones of the bunch. HR and IT, for example, are in many cases reluctant bystanders to progress and sometimes surprisingly uninformed about new technology or trends. (In some of my social media projects, in-house IT departments are either reluctant partners or standing on the sideline.) The one department that seems to have embraced change, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is marketing. PR is often caught in the middle of this dynamic and too often unwilling or unable to drive its own momentum.
  • Boomers Dominate Leadership – Though statistics suggest boomers are among the fastest growing users of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, many older workers are less familiar and comfortable with new technology, social or otherwise. This helps explain anachronisms like the CEO who refuses to use email or others who shun any type of digital discourse. The grizzled leadership in many PR companies has the same generational anxiety about trying new tools and approaches. This trend should change as younger, much more tech-savvy workers gain leadership roles.
  • Tyranny of Today – Many communication professionals operate at a hyper pace and in a routine that leaves little room for introspection or learning. In that context, it’s easy to simply continue focusing on immediate projects and put off professional development – both formal and otherwise. Add to this the reality that many clients and peers are also focusing on their daily priorities, and paying little attention to broader issues outside their immediate tasks. Perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from peers struggling to understand and incorporate new technology is “I just don’t have time.”
  • Knowledge Gap – Save perhaps for a few precocious millenials, very few of us in the PR industry start with a deep base of knowledge in social media or related technology. What we know is what we’ve learned in the past decade or so as social media has become more prevalent in our lives. So it takes effort and commitment to remain in learning mode and stay current on major trends and new platforms. Unfortunately, it seems too many PR pros are counting on a few resident tech nerds or outside experts rather than upgrading their own knowledge base.

Taken together, these factors help explain the myopic outlook and slow adoption of social media in PR. And I’ve experienced every one of these barriers, so I have some understanding for the challenges in our business. But they shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. I don’t want to be having this same discussion in 5 years.

This article by the folks at Hay Group argues that the next frontier for HR is harnessing “big data” to drive engagement with employees and improve talent management – the holy grail of many HR teams. The author suggests there is a stark contrast between the massive explosion of data and real-time analytics in fields like marketing and retail with the halting, uneven progress in HR. For many HR teams, the promise of big data is still more potential than reality – notably in the area of talent development and succession planning.

This assessment is in line with what I’ve seen over years of working closely with HR teams in a wide range of organizations. Despite the emergence of powerful tools and technology – and access to related data on employees and their performance – too many HR departments are still struggling with rudimentary challenges like creating clean, dynamic staff directories and are barely scratching the surface of data collection and analysis. Though in theory HR departments know a great deal about their employees, I haven’t seen (or heard of) many teams that are consistently collecting and analyzing data and using their insights to direct their policies and programs. (To be fair, the one area that seems to be evolving for the better is online performance management. ) In fact, it’s not rare for me to encounter HR teams still using written records or forms for many of their HR transactions – which obviously limits their ability to quickly collect, update and review the information.

Here are a few examples where big data – used to its full potential – could dramatically improve engagement and results beyond talent management:

  • Virtually all leading organizations conduct some sort of engagement or culture survey. Many of these surveys, however, remain superficial (often formulaic) annual surveys more useful for benchmarking than driving real change – including responsive program and policy adjustments – across the organization. Often these surveys are outsourced and the information is reviewed once to develop the final report, and never seen or used again. With all the enterprise social media platforms and real-time analytic tools available, would it not make sense to implement a more sustained, detailed and actionable research program with employees? At minimum, companies should track the content of internal conversations (on the intranet, blogs or other discussion platforms) with the same level of sophistication and follow-up as they do with external platforms. Listening should not be a one-time annual event, but a full-time contact sport.
  • Though some companies have mastered the art of knowledge management and make it easy for their teams to identify and contact peers for collaboration, others still struggle with relatively simple profile information that would allow employees across all levels to search for peers with specific skills, expertise or experience. Having this data readily available would also help leaders develop ad-hoc project teams and make informed staff assignments.
  • While consumers are repeatedly probed for their opinions and preferences on topics like communication and marketing, employees are not consistently asked about company communications. Though some companies conduct robust, actionable internal audits designed to assess the effectiveness of their communication efforts, many rely on piece-meal efforts that are often event-driven, sporadic and informal (qualitative.) Others don’t take full advantage of the built-in tracking devices on their intranets or corporate email tools, which can provide a rolling update on key metrics like traffic, page views and comments. This is a relatively easy fix that can help to make corporate communications much more relevant, resonant and impactful.
  • Though it’s not employee data per se, harnessing the ideas and collective wisdom of an internal audience can be a major driver of innovation and engagement. Companies like Dell and RBC use an internal crowd-sourcing platform to solicit and rank employee ideas on a range of topics, and incorporate the best suggestions in their operations and planning. Several vendors provide user-friendly platforms that do most of the work behind the scenes and allow users to focus on the ideas and the outcomes.

Much like IT’s reluctant acceptance of social media and new technology, I fear HR’s slow adoption of data collection and analytics will decrease its relevance and credibility in the coming years. The result will be the exact opposite of what the HR teams seek; prospective employees raised on social media, ubiquitous communication and all-digital content are unlikely to be impressed if the very team responsible for managing talent and fostering a dynamic culture is so clearly out of sync with social and technology trends.

Earlier this year Forrester came out with another study commenting on the trend towards increased mobility of technology, and the important implications for marketers. (Here’s another good summary on enterprise mobility trends.) In fact, mobile access to digital information and tools is becoming almost ubiquitous in some developed countries.  As Forrester notes in the report: With more than 1 billion smartphones in consumers’ pockets at the beginning of 2013, mobile is driving a second Internet revolution that’s even more profound than the first one. Mobile creates new value for consumers and businesses, alters cost structures, and disrupts ecosystems. That’s why marketers must move away from tactical mobile efforts to more transformative mobile marketing strategies in 2013.

This disruptive technology is changing how consumers conduct a wide range of activities and use an expanding array of applications and tools – from accessing their email, to banking to downloading an e-book or watching a movie. And the trend is still evolving in both scope and amplitude; in fact, the very definition of mobility is changing. It’s not enough to just address the use of smartphones, or even the booming use of tablets. The recent emphasis is towards “wearable” devices (like Google Glasses) cars and TVs that extend the mobile experience.

Is this mobility trend another example of how internal communications, and employee engagement efforts, lag marketing trends  or externally focused practices? There are huge potential benefits to a robust, relevant internal mobile strategy for organizations. In a mobile environment, the traditional hurdle of access to information and communication sources – which for many workers remains elusive – becomes irrelevant. Furthermore, communication teams can personalize content based on device, role, context (time, knowledge, location) and even personal preference. Mobility provides unique convenience and immediacy – potentially giving employees the ability to do “anything, anywhere and anytime.” It can also provide workers with access to real-time data, a critical benefit in many occupations.

Yet, my personal experience suggests many companies have rudimentary or nascent mobile strategies to reach employees; many appear to still be struggling simply to make their intranet or other digital sources available to their workers. Few are adequately addressing the booming use of smart phones – still debating BYOD issues and/or not distributing smart tools broadly across their workforce. Even fewer organizations outside technology circles are focused on tablets, which are the biggest growth area. Even those considering how to share content across mobile devices do little to help employees create or share content, or collaborate using these same mobile tools. I recognize companies have to address the security, support and cost issues associated with a shift to mobile, but those excuses are wearing thin after several years of discussion.

Some observers are more optimistic about enterprise adoption – check out this article – arguing that the gap between personal use of mobility and work use will continue to narrow. This blog post suggests the expanded use of personal devices in the workplaces (extending to non-executive staff) will continue to drive adoption of mobile applications inside the enterprise. What both of these articles make clear is that even companies reluctant to jump on the mobility bandwagon need to evolve their reliance on their internal “network” (typically secure corporate email, LAN network and intranet) or they risk seeing those corporate channels becoming irrelevant.

I’ll be watching with interest to see if and how companies move towards this mobility trend to improve their workplace communications.

In the wake of their unequivocal electoral defeat in November, the GOP party has been doing some chaotic soul-searching to figure out what went wrong, and how they can get back in the White House.

Well, it appears the brighter Republican minds have determined that they had a “messaging” problem in the election, rather than any demographic or policy dissonance between the American electorate and the Republican platform. More specifically, some argued it was who delivers the message and how it’s delivered that matters most; the underlying GOP messages themselves retain their probity and relevance. To use the words of one attendant at the RNC debrief: “we don’t need a new pair of shoes, we just need to shine our shoes.”  More recently, following the inauguration of President Obama, Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders reaffirmed this assessment, saying their party needed to change the way it communicates, not its ideas, to win back the White House.

As a communication professional, I would be the last person to deny that language and messaging can make a difference in public perception, attitudes and behavior. And I support the theory that the GOP election campaign was littered with examples of messaging (scripted and unintentional) that influenced the polls and ultimately fueled their electoral defeat. But the GOP post-mortem analysis seems far too simplistic and self-serving. In fact, it reflects a particular obsession in politics with adjusting words and labels to be more palatable and resonant – packaging which often comes with limited connection to, or impact on, the underlying policy reality. This game of focus-group window-dressing and euphemisms has become so common and predictable in Washington it’s something of a bad cliché. “Hey, we need a user-friendly label for this new tax law that plays well in the middle-class….”

In PR we often run into clients or prospects that ask us to “message” them out of a crisis or bad reputation. And just as often I tell them that communication alone can’t fix a bad decision or policy. But they still try.

I’ll leave it to others to determine whether American voters really buy into the GOP platform – the actual policies, values and laws that they promote and implement. But I would argue the Republican messages were only one part of a broader construct that shaped their public profile – which includes their actions and ideas, not just their words. And though brands and labels do matter, they can’t exist (or be changed) in a vacuum. Messaging without supporting evidence and ongoing corroboration – particular in a political context – is little more than dubious propaganda.  I also believe that most American consumers/voters are smarter than political leaders (and their armies of consultants and lobbyists) give them credit for, and will see through the most blatant messaging overhauls.

As luck would have it, I’ve been reading the results of Edelman’s excellent annual survey on trust. The survey suggests that trust of leaders and organizations is critical to influencing audience opinions and behavior (whether it be purchase, engagement or advocacy.) I think most of us would agree with that basic premise. But the study further argues that to build and sustain trust companies/leaders must focus on five key areas:

  • Stakeholders want to see ENGAGEMENT behaviors like frequent, transparent communications and obvious care for employees and customers.  There’s great faith built on the back of dialogue and interaction.
  • They expect clear exhibition of INTEGRITY of business practices and responsible actions about issues. Again, transparency is key, since it’s inadvisable to go around bragging how high your integrity is.
  • Quality PRODUCTS AND SERVICES seem like cost-of-entry, but this is a powerful way to build trust, especially with your innovation in evidence.
  • Once upon a time, brands could truly differentiate themselves by addressing a greater PURPOSE than mere profit and valuation results. Purpose initiatives are more powerful than ever for bonding and setting oneself apart… but now it’s expected, if not demanded, that businesses work to protect the environment, address societal needs and impact their community.
  • The fundamentals of the enterprise – OPERATIONS – are an important basis for trust; these include having highly regarded leadership, ranking among top companies and posting strong financial returns. And while you’re not likely to generate great increases in trust with these, if you fail, trust will plummet, and you’ll have much bigger issues to address.

I recognize the Edelman study focuses on companies and executives, rather than politicians or political parties. (On a side note, the survey shows that government lags business, media and NGOs in trust ratings, with the gap between government and business growing.) But I think the findings are quite relevant to this issue. It suggests that some of the old chestnuts of PR like “walk the talk” and “show me don’t just tell me” are still valid. In order to drive and sustain tangible changes in public attitudes and behavior, words (spoken or written) aren’t enough. It’s time politicians and executives commit to a more mature, comprehensive approach – where their actions, ideas and messages are real and aligned – to build credibility and support. I’ll be watching with interest how the GOP does with its “words first” approach.

Each year at this time the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show occurs in Las Vegas. This is like the Super Bowl of the technology industry with equal parts hype, illusion, innovation and debauchery in the program. What strikes me every year, however, is not necessarily the news or products coming out of CES – here’s one summary of the key trends at CES – but that the event is virtually ignored by the PR industry.

As I read article after article in the business, marketing and technology media outlets, there is nary a mention in PR industry publications. (PRWeek US does have one article, but it focuses on how brands are adapting their promotions to drive buzz at the event rather than the actual technology.) There’s a similar trend on popular PR blogs and discussion groups, with those leaning on communication (or broader, related topics like engagement and dialogue) virtually ignoring the event and related discussions.

This lack of interest, and coverage, reflects a dangerous blind spot for the PR industry, which still focuses on churning out content and traditional techniques and tools and lacks interest and expertise in emerging technologies. I’ve witnessed the same “leading from behind” trend with the industry’s uneven, tentative reaction to the social media revolution, which has resulted in sporadic deployment and glaring knowledge gaps across the industry. It’s as if the technology side of the equation has been outsourced to digital agencies or even IT teams (though the latter also lag badly in some organizations.)

I recognize CES is about consumer technology and products, but I believe the concept of marketing to consumers carries some relevance to marketing – or communicating – to other audiences, including employees. At minimum, should professional communicators not track what new technologies are impacting various products and industries – particularly those directly grounded in communication areas like digital content and collaboration?

This is one area where marketing and advertising firms seem to have the upper hand. They realize, it seems, that they risk irrelevance and oblivion if they don’t seek to understand and implement new technology to inform and engage customers. I like the approach of the Starcom/Publicis agency team, which hosted hundreds of clients at CES to expose them to emerging trends and partner in discussions on the implications for marketing. Their message on the event is perceptive and telling:

“CES is about more than just technology.  The agency views it instead at the Consumer Experience Show. […] One of the underlying messages from CES is that technology is a major contributor to a culture and business climate that is evolving at warp speed. Ultimately, creating a compelling experience is what we’re all struggling to do.”

I keep hoping that the PR industry will stop playing catch up on these major trends. Maybe I’ll see more interest and participation at SXSW in Austin, which is ostensibly more relevant to PR professionals. Getting informed and engaged is in the interests of our industry, and our clients.

I’ve been in the communication business a long time; now well into my second decade. Though I’ve witnessed many changes as the profession has evolved – most of them positive – there are also several industry characteristics that seem to stubbornly resist progress, almost like anachronisms. These aren’t so positive. Granted, this is just an unscientific tally from my personal perspective, but here is a list of communication quirks, or habits, that I’m surprised to still be seeing in the workplace:

  1. I’m amazed at the prominence of much-maligned PowerPoint as a communication tool. Even harsh critics seem to use the tool – with minor variations and embellishments – even as they attack the platform. Despite the introduction of plenty of new technology and platforms over the years – including more dynamic PP tools like Prezi and new visual options – the tried-and-true model remains ubiquitous.
  2. Interactive, digital 3-D environments like Second Life have a very low profile, and usage, despite the early hype and promise.  A few cutting-edge firms use the platforms for a wide range of communication activities (including secure, enterprise versions for internal use) but many pros seem to have little awareness or interest in this technology.
  3. Corporate communications content is almost devoid of humor, which is so prominent in our digital lives and a key ingredient in the best marketing and entertainment campaigns. I understand some topics are serious, but the PR industry seems to have a deathly fear of humor that fuels work that is needlessly boring and forgettable.
  4. I still see much more “push” communication – or talking to/at our audiences – than “pull” activities, where users can access information they want, when and where they want to.  Genuine conversation – which can be fostered through a range of new social media tools – is even more rare.
  5. Many companies still have no social media strategy. And I’m not talking about a proactive, intervention plan. Many don’t even have a defensive, passive social media program – with a basic employee policy and/or rudimentary monitoring.
  6. While the internet is truly global – a virtual community where distance and borders are irrelevant – many companies are still surprisingly insular and lack basic knowledge of global communication trends and differences. (One example: no awareness or recognition of the dominance of languages other than English on the Internet.)
  7. With apologies to my friends in IT… most IT departments in organizations remain a reluctant partner and barrier to progress, rather than a technology leader or facilitator. Yes, they have to consider costs and risks. But IT’s lack of attention to new technology and thin excuses (we can’t support that third-party platform) has made the function less relevant in many organizations.
  8. Finally, perhaps the most surprising…too many professionals still lead with a tactic at the expense of strategy. It’s the old shoot, fire, aim adage…with a checklist mentality focused on deliverables and activity and not on driving impactful, relevant objectives.  The new version – “can you set us up with a Facebook page” – is simply an updated variation of pushing out the old employee newsletter (without clear purpose or metrics.)

Like in any industry, it can be hard to change entrenched habits. And our bosses or clients – senior executives – are often the ones pushing back on untested, new approaches. But if we hope to position ourselves as smart, agile consultants we can’t fall back on excuses and inertia.

I recently attended a conference in Austin that focused on social media best practices, and more specifically the merit of word-of-mouth in driving brand reputation and preference.

Wordofmouth.org’s Andy Sernovitz makes a compelling and deceptively simple argument that love – or making your customers happy – is the fuel for positive, robust word-of-mouth conversation. This positive buzz, in turn, provides the essential element for a lasting, mutually beneficial relationship between customer and company that typically translates into customer advocacy and, ideally, purchase.

In short, companies need to give their customers a good reason to like them, and talk about their products or services. Making customers happy – best done by doing things big and small that are remarkable, or special – helps spark and spread the conversation, and also ensures the buzz remains positive – which is critical since we all know that a lover scorned can make a great deal of bad noise. Sernovitz has a funny line in his presentation that advertising is the price for not having good word-of-mouth; companies without a robust, active fan base need to pay to broadcast their message to generate the same awareness and interest. Another key point here is that this goes well beyond the actual product or service the company offers, it’s also about how they treat their customers.

In an era when personal recommendations carry considerable weight in consumer consideration and purchase, the relevance, emotional heft and organic credibility of word-of-mouth is critical. This observation intuitively makes plenty of sense to me. I’ve experience first-hand how simple steps taken by companies – both good and bad – have dramatically impacted my impression, commentary and likelihood to recommend them to others.

So here’s the question I asked myself walking out of this conference: does this same logic, or model of loving your target audience, apply to a corporate context? More specifically, could it help to make employee communications more relevant and compelling, and help to address the malaise and detachment that seems widespread in so many organizations?

My answer is…a qualified yes.

On the one hand, I can see how this model isn’t a perfect fit for the corporate world.

  • First, information like quarterly earnings, strategic priorities or leadership changes does not exactly fit the mold of content that can delight and surprise the audience. Corporate news can tend to be dry and formal.
  • It’s also important to remember that content must match the situation and audience, so a more informal, conversational and/or humorous approach may not be appropriate for all companies or employee segments.
  • While companies can reach and engage new fans and customers every day, they typically have a much more limited and stable internal audience. Dealing with employees, therefore, doesn’t allow the same experimentation or re-invention you can have with consumers.
  • Finally, love must be earned through both deeds and words. In an era rife with company layoffs and cost-cutting, an approach that appears contrived or disingenuous may foster cynicism and even anger rather than love.

Still, I think there are important lessons here for communication professionals:

  • Never think of employees as a captive audience that have no choice but to absorb and use the information you share. The more you think of employees as internal customers – with their own preferences, habits, concerns and, yes, distractions – the more you can customize your outreach to increase relevance and impact. A good mindset is to remember you are competing for eyeballs just as you would in a marketing context.
  • Though corporate information and news can be dry and technical, there is plenty of opportunity to make communication more original, smart and…yes, more remarkable. There are many internal campaigns and messages that use the best elements of marketing – including sarcasm and humor – to break through the clutter and start positive conversations. Maybe the best opportunity is the element of surprise – doing something (positive) your employees don’t expect.
  • Don’t underestimate the small touches – whether informal manager recognition or a CEO responding quickly to an employee email. Employee opinions are shaped by these small, daily interactions as much as the formal HR policies and benefits.
  • Listen to your employees. Really listen. That means not just the usual annual surveys – which often have a dubious reputation – but addressing questions and concerns through all available channels. Even better, try to fix issues that need fixing.
  • Remember that this is a conversation, not a monologue. By its very nature, word-of-mouth must be allowed to flow freely with minimal restriction. If you want to start some good buzz, don’t strangle it with onerous legal hurdles or by stifling legitimate criticism.
  • Remember that line about “advertising is the price of not having good word-of-mouth”? Use that same logic to calibrate your communication output to focus more on how your employees are reacting to your activities, and how you can improve that response, than simply increasing the volume of your outreach. Better to do less communication that works.
  • Identify and nurture your influential supporters. Much like on the web, the comments and opinions of employee peers will play a big role in the water cooler discussions.

Perhaps the biggest lesson here is that your communication approach must consider both the head and the heart. It’s almost a professional cliché, but despite that too many organizations emphasize fact over emotion and productivity over opinion. Think of your employees as individuals that will be more engaged and supportive if they feel appreciated and relevant. Maybe you do need more than love in the business world, but you probably won’t be successful without it.

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