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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.

In recent weeks I’ve been involved in several projects that revolve around that challenging, nebulous communication exercise called the “vision thing.” More specifically, I’ve worked with clients to help develop, or uncover, and articulate their corporate mission…or vision…or purpose.

As you can surmise by my last sentence, these type of engagements are often rife with confusing, overlapping terminology and unclear intent. In fact, the very labels used in this type of work usually spark negative reactions, if not yawns, for many employees. Still, this is critical work that can help to direct business decisions and boost employee morale, engagement and productivity.

On the surface, helping a company to crystallize its purpose – or reason for being in business – seems obvious. In fact, shouldn’t a company already know who it wants to be, and what it wants to stand for in the marketplace? In theory yes, but the reality is many organizations don’t have a credible, relevant purpose – or mission statement – that captures their core aspirations and corporate DNA. Even fewer of them have defined their identity and core values. Much of the work I’ve seen in this area is generic, trite and lacks relevance or credibility with both customers and employees. Think of the clichéd values on the wall (sometimes as many as 12!) or the vacuous mission statement with no apparent link to daily operations or goals.

With this context in mind, I’ve developed a short checklist to help organizations develop and execute a valid mission statement:

  • Use words wisely – Knowing that many employees (and indeed professionals) are fuzzy about what these words mean and often tune them out, start by carefully selecting and clearly defining the labels you will use. Perhaps the most frequent confusion I’ve seen centers around purpose – which identifies a company’s fundamental reason for being, and captures key customer benefits and/or market differentiators – and strategy – which is a plan of action, or roadmap, to achieve the purpose.
  • Connect the dots – A purpose will only make sense, and drive real change, if it’s part of a strategic framework that clearly outlines the various elements of an organization’s strategic plan. There is the purpose, or aspiration, which is linked to the strategy, or roadmap to achieve the purpose. Beyond that, there are typically related elements such as: core values that define the “how”, or desired behaviors; market differentiators; cultural tenets; and so on. Whatever the elements are – since these will differ based on circumstance and industry – their relationship and relevance should be clearly and consistently communicated.
  • Don’t forget the brand – Linked to the point above, a purpose should also inform a company’s brand positioning. That means marketing messages and themes should reinforce, if not specifically mention, the key elements of the purpose. Many companies spend considerable time developing their brand essence or positioning, as well as related tag lines or campaign slogans. This marketing approach certainly has merit, but the process – and implicit messages – must be aligned both with the purpose and related themes the company is promoting with employees.
  • Be credible – Having a purpose that is a stretch, or aspiration, is fine. In fact, the purpose can be so ambitious the company may never fully achieve it. But the purpose has to be realistic and based on true marketplace advantages and cultural differentiators.
  • Walk the talk – As noted above, the key to a viable, relevant purpose is having a robust plan of action – or strategy – that firmly anchors the purpose to the company’s business operations. Everything the company does – all the way down to capital investments, performance reviews and team priorities – should be linked to achieving the purpose. In short, it can’t just be an idea or concept.
  • Tell a story – Though in theory a purpose should serve to direct and motivate staff, too often they fail to engage and drive any meaningful action. There is huge opportunity to leverage the inherent passion and pride in a purpose through compelling, consistent communication across all audiences. Companies that do this well use all the tools and sophistication of marketing and storytelling to bring their purpose to life and illustrate best practices and positive outcomes.
  • Be disciplined – A purpose isn’t going to do much good if there’s no discipline behind it. It should serve as the North Star for a company, and a litmus test for investment of time and resources. If an activity or investment doesn’t support the purpose, don’t do it.
  • Think long term – Many companies often make a big splash to announce their new purpose (or new strategy) but often fail to follow-up with updates and illustrations that provide a sense of progress and success. Though short-term priorities and even strategies will change over time, a purpose should have a long shelf life. The key to sustaining relevance, therefore, is to give stakeholders are sense of if/how the purpose is being achieved, and what impact that is having on the company’s success.

Through my career as a communication professional, one mantra that’s provided me with sustained inspiration and direction is the need to consider all five senses while communicating. In other words, though we tend to spend most of our time in written words (only using sight) there is benefit in using other senses as appropriate – particularly sight and sound – to try to reach and affect our target audiences.  As it happens, I got a great reminder the past few weeks of the impact and effectiveness of compelling visuals.

First, I finally joined the Pinterest bandwagon. I’d heard the increasing buzz about the booming site (or app?) from peers and friends alike, and now use it regularly to “pin” and share a wide range of images. I’m still not sure if it’s a fad or adds any lasting value to the on-line conversation, but from my perspective the images (most of them photographs or posters) are as compelling and informative as the best blog posts or Twitter comments – though it’s true the format limits the detail and nuance the images can convey. Still, I’ve discovered several stories and campaigns – including the much-hyped KONY story – through their Pinterest “windows.” And for what it’s worth my peers and friends have a much richer understanding of my personality and preferences from my selection of images.

The past few months some of the best blog posts I’ve read – or seen – involved info-graphics on a wide range of topics – ranging from the growth of the Internet to the DNA of social media. And by the way, they are much more compelling, memorable and user-friendly than equivalent white papers on similar topics. Check out this one as an example. I’ve also noticed a strong trend towards peers and friends sending me (or posting) photos and videos – often with little or no text.

My best personal anecdote of the power of visuals is about a simple photograph. While working several years ago in a global organization undergoing a massive transformation (both cultural and structural) we convinced the CEO to focus on several stark, bold photographs to convey the key themes behind the change. Over time these photos became widely recognized and even used as unofficial brands for the various facets of the program. One photo in particular – a fish jumping from a safe, small bowl of water into a larger one – came to symbolize the essence of the company’s revolution and was prominently displayed in the CEO’s office as a reminder. Of course, there was content behind the photo – without meaning using photos can easily invite sarcasm and even parody.

I’m not the only one thinking about this visual trend; this blog post in AdAge argues the shift to visual is part of a greater cultural trend sparked by technology: Smarter devices are prompting more occasions for people to create and consume visual content, while social media is encouraging that content to be shared on multiple platforms.

While the use of strong visuals and design has long been a best practice in advertising and entertainment (which could be described as both a form of marketing and communication), it remains nascent and uneven in the PR industry.  For many organizations, the focus on visuals (and related emphasis on graphic design) is limited to primitive PowerPoint slides and esoteric debates about fonts. Even simple internal branding or program collateral is rare in many corporate settings.  Where visuals exist, they are too often functional and lacking attention to creative, original design.  (When is the last time you’ve seen content on bulletin boards with any hint of imagination and visual originality?) Video also seems limited in many companies – at least in terms of internal use – despite the fact new technology makes shooting and editing content ridiculously easy and inexpensive. Even photography seems to be an after-thought in communication platforms and plans.  Years ago this might be explained by the cost of design and printing, but in this digital age there is no excuse for the paucity of pictures.

While one could argue the external world bombards us with too much visual stimulus – think a Blade Runner dystopia where imagery overload drowns out even compelling ideas – many organizations are stuck too far in the other direction. In a commendable effort to avoid hype and be direct, they have become too serious and formulaic, even boring.  Another possible factor behind this visual gap is the lingering firewalls between related disciplines like marketing, IT, design and PR. While it seems like a no-brainer to walk down the hall to your marketing team to leverage them in an internal promotion – one of many examples of potential cross-pollination – it seems to be a rare occurrence.

The result of this lack of visual imagination is predictable: many internal communication programs have limited resonance and impact on employee awareness and engagement. While our focus as communication professionals should always remain the message, we need to expand our thinking about how we communicate with our audiences. The power of images is too potent to ignore.

Universal McCann’s latest “Wave” global report - which they claim is the longest running and largest study dedicated to social media – provides an essential statistical benchmark on the evolution of social media. The key findings this year are no surprise: the survey of thousands of global internet users confirms that social media remains an explosive, dynamic phenomenon that is changing how we interact, think, feel and behave. This particular study focuses on how brands are engaging with consumers in social media.

The big takeaway from this study is that data suggests there is huge demand for a more social, interactive relationship with brands online. Almost half of active internet users – who collectively visit social networks 1.5 billion times every day – are joining brand communities. This is occurring despite a steady decline of users visiting “official” company websites and the prominence of peer-to-peer brand recommendations. In short, consumers increasingly want to engage with brands in social media, but on the right terms. The key, according to the report authors, is to identify the kind of relationship users want with brands, and to create corresponding social media programs. Put another way, companies must understand the needs and motivations of consumers as a critical first step in their social media planning. The catch is that these needs differ widely by country, topic (or category) and audience – so brands should seek granular information on their target consumers to detail their habits and preferences. This approach means selecting the platform or network comes last, not first. And that doesn’t mean returning to the hard sell, which still remains anathema to many internet consumers.

Here are other highlights of the survey:

  • Social networks have become more embedded in our everyday lives as the range of online activities and frequency of usage continues to increase;
  • Social media use varies widely depending on geography and user demographics;
  • Users have a wide range of motives for accessing web platforms, and select different platforms for different purposes. (Again these motives vary widely by geography.)
  • Though penetration among 16-24 year olds remains highest, the 25-34 age bracket has seen the biggest jump in usage (from 52% to 70% in 3 years);
  • Social networks have become the main forum for social interaction, even bypassing face-to-face contact;
  • Content sharing continues to be popular, though it’s now occurring on a wider range of platforms;
  • Personal blogs and forums are losing some traction, but are also becoming more specialized and targeted. Micro-blogging, on the other hand, has quickly grown into a mass market activity;
  • There’s been a significant shift to accessing social media through mobile devices and applications;
  • On the brand front, primary reasons for joining brand communities (usually on social networks) include learning about the brand/product, getting advance news on products, and gaining access to free content.
The data in this study provides helpful context, and suggests there is great opportunity for brands to engage with consumers online. But the study also confirms the importance of doing your homework to understand the needs and habits of your target consumer, or audience. That’s not necessarily a new approach, but it appears to be more relevant than ever in the changing web environment.
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