Revolutionary Measures

Marketing by robots?

Technology has disrupted many industries, radically changing the roles of those that work in them. Thirty years ago, every medium or large organisation had a typing pool, with secretaries that took dictation and then typed letters, tippexing over any mistakes. Insurance was primarily sold face to face through brokers, while buying a CD involved a trip to the nearest HMV or Virgin Megastore.

Electronic typewriter - the final stage in typ...

Electronic typewriter – the final stage in typewriter development. A 1989 Canon Typestar 110 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is now marketing’s turn to feel the impact of technology change. When I started in PR 20 years ago, technology essentially involved a desktop PC, a landline and a fax machine. I remember setting my heart on being promoted in order to ‘earn’ a work mobile phone and the excitement when internet access and email arrived. Things have changed a great deal, but essentially by simply automating existing processes. Rather than physically posting press releases to journalists, PRs now send an email, and marketing campaigns are now integrated and include digital channels. And you could argue that these changes have benefited PR and marketing – the sector is larger than it was, with more senior level practitioners.

However, digital business as usual is no longer enough. Marketing is now being transformed by technology, with those working in it enabled by a whole range of new tools and abilities that completely change how the entire industry operates. This is being driven by three key trends – the rise of Big Data, social media, and improved, end-to-end measurement tools.

1. Big Data – beyond the hype
We live in a world where data is being created an astonishing rate. And much of this data is personal information created on social media and consequently of interest to marketers. You can select target audiences to advertise to using the most narrow of parameters – if you want to reach one armed female ferret fanciers in Altrincham it is easy to do. But to make Big Data work for marketing, you need to learn technical and real-time analytic skills that can be at odds with the traditional annual or six monthly campaign-based approach that many people were brought up on. You also need flexibility, a desire to experiment to see what works, a willingness to learn from mistakes and a focus on constantly adapting and improving what you do.

2. Social Media – the balance has shifted
The relationship between marketers and consumers used to be balanced firmly in favour of corporate suits. Campaigns were launched at their target markets, and while there was some market testing, it was normally late in the process. Social media changes all that – consumers have the chance to have their opinions heard by a global audience instantly, uncontrolled by marketing organisations. The latest example of this is the Comcast case, where a call to cancel an internet connection degenerated into the customer service agent berating the consumer for having the temerity to try and leave. Over 3.5 million people listened to the customer’s recording of the call in just a few days. Marketers have lost control of the conversation.

3. You can measure everything
One of the traditional issues with PR used to be that it was difficult to measure. At a simplistic level you could count clippings, or even assign them a monetary value based on advertising rates, but these were crude and didn’t link to other marketing disciplines. Now you can measure everything, seeing exactly what a prospect has viewed on the way to a purchase and use Big Data algorithms to weight the relative impact of every contact on the eventual sale. Software enables you to link different channels seamlessly, so in terms of PR and social media you could see how individual articles or tweets have moved the customer journey forward.

So, some of the skills that marketing people took for granted as useful – empathy, the ability to schmooze and being good on the phone/in meetings – are no longer enough. You need to be able to use technology as a lever to better understand customers in a scalable, real-time way, and have the strategic skills to create content that will best reach them. For a traditional industry such as marketing this does mean changing how people operate – which can be uncomfortable and even threatening to experienced marketers. However the prize is worth fighting for. Marketers have the chance to not only prove the value of what they do, but increase their own standing within their organisations by taking a more strategic role. All they need is an open mind and a desire to embrace their more analytic and technical sides.

July 23, 2014 Posted by | Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

PRs vs journalists – battle lines drawn?

A few weeks ago BBC Economics Editor Robert Peston sparked a fierce (and ongoing) debate by warning of the power of the PR industry in setting and controlling the news agenda. His views, given in the annual Charles Wheeler lecture, were that the combination of a lack of resources at newspapers and the central position of PRs as gatekeepers was leading to a world where companies and their representatives dictated the agenda. An environment full of spurious stories that at the very least obfuscated the truth, and that the worst were downright lies or spin. He concluded “I have never been in any doubt that PRs are the enemy.”

English: British journalist Robert Peston, mid...

English: British journalist Robert Peston, mid-interview in London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other journalists have taken up the battle cry, with Nick Cohen describing press officers as “the nearest thing to prostitutes you can find in public life.” In response, Public Relations Consultants Association boss, Francis Ingham, called the comments ‘sanctimonious’ and a ‘venomous, ill-judged diatribe.”

As in any relationship, PRs and journalists have always taken pot shots at each other. The balance has shifted over the last twenty years – there are now more PRs than journalists, generally they earn more, and traditional media has been hit hard by the rise of the internet.

I think the argument risks getting out of hand, with both sides missing the point. Firstly, the range of the PR industry is broad, as is journalism. What Robert Peston has seen in his career working for national and broadcast media is not the same as the majority of trade or local journalists who have a much less antagonistic relationship with the PRs that pitch them stories. The same goes for political spin – I work in PR, but I’m not Alastair Campbell or Malcolm Tucker. Clearly there is abuse of position and power by spin doctors as they deliberately work to spike stories or brief against opponents. Does that mean that every PR does the same (or would like to?). Speaking personally the answer is no, as I’m not sure my blood pressure could stand it – or that the vocabulary improvement would go down well at the school gates.

Secondly, there is a big difference between in-house PRs and agencies. Press officers have a single client, their employer, who pays their salary. In this environment it is potentially easy to lose your sense of perspective, and to believe that what your organisation is doing is right, and that everyone else is out to get you. And this isn’t just competitive businesses or warring politicians, press officers at charities and NGOs often believe passionately in the cause they are espousing and want everyone else to feel the same. In contrast, PR agencies are middlemen, and rely on their ideas and relationships with the press to gain new clients. So burning bridges by bullying journalists into taking down a story or requesting copy approval may work once, but it will destroy a relationship for the future. As a PR person I must admit I have asked for stories to be changed online – but only for the simple reason they were factually inaccurate. My personal favourite is politely requesting a journalist get the sex right of the client he’d interviewed.

Thirdly, commentators need to look at the wider context. The rise of ‘content’ as an all encompassing area lumps together what was previously seen as advertorial, proper journalism, wire reports and pictures of cute cats lifted off social media close to deadline. Traditional print media have faced falling circulations and increased competition as they’ve moved online, ironically at the same time as having more space to fill. This means publications now need more content than ever before, with fewer, less experienced staff on hand to deliver it. PR and marketing-led content has filled this vacuum, whether from survey-based press releases, soft features or owned content submitted by organisations. This doesn’t have to be bad – take the Red Bull Stratos skydive or footage from any NASA mission, but it has to be in addition to real, investigative reporting rather than instead of it.

The balance between journalists and PRs has changed. However that doesn’t mean that journalists don’t have power – or that the relationship should get too friendly. Whatever happens day to day, journalists and PR people do have differing jobs to do – and neither should forget that. Not all PR people are power-crazed Alastair Campbells – nor are all journalists Andy Coulsons…………

July 2, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The end of the creative professions?

The industrial revolution mechanised previously craft-based activities, and since then machines have become more and more involved in creating the world around us. But until a few years ago, this mechanisation didn’t affect those of us in the creative industries – after all, our imagination and skills couldn’t be replicated by a machine.

Best Wedding Photography Picture about Profess...

The internet has changed all of that. In some cases it has allowed computers to take on tasks that were previously only done by humans, by applying artificial intelligence and machine learning and breaking them into discrete tasks. You can now get computer-written journalism, which use algorithms to bring together data and organise it into a rudimentary article. In the US, stories about minor earthquake reports are now routinely created and published, based on information supplied by the US Geological Survey. It isn’t much of a stretch to see short sports reports written based on player data and profiles, avoiding the need to send a reporter out to lower league matches.

However the biggest threat or opportunity to the creative industries is that the internet and digital technology has broken down the barriers around previously specialist occupations. Take photography. In the past only professional photographers could afford the equipment needed to create (and manually develop) arresting images. Now, similar levels of performance are available in a smartphone, and PhotoShop can do the rest. News stories frequently use amateur shots from bystanders who happened to be in the right place at the right time, adding extra depth to articles. Design and PR are both equally affected. Anyone can set up as a web designer or copywriter, without necessarily needing to undergo lengthy training.

In many ways this is a good thing – the internet has democratised creative industries that were previously off limits to most of us and enables more people to share their thoughts, feelings and ideas. It uncovers real talents who never previously would have been spotted, whether that is musicians on YouTube or specialist bloggers with a passion for their subject. But what it also does is amateurise previously professional occupations. How can a portrait photographer compete on cost with a bloke and an iPhone? Again, a copywriter on eLance charges much less than a professional. And the overall effect is that there is more stuff out there (words, pictures, videos of cute cats), but quality is far more hit or miss.

Before people start complaining, as someone that makes a living through PR and copywriting I obviously do have a vested interest here. But that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome more competition and the chance for more people to be creative. Far from it. However businesses need to understand that you get what you pay for – in the same way that fixing your car yourself is inherently riskier than going to a garage (unless you are a mechanic), working with amateurs opens you up to potential issues. Do they have insurance if something goes wrong, do they understand copyright, are they using legal images on your new website? There are 101 questions that you need to be sure of, before handing over your money. And it can be pretty obvious when a website has been put together by the managing director’s teenage son or daughter. Businesses therefore need to strike a balance between democratisation and working with amateurs if they are to stand out in an increasingly crowded global market.

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April 16, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pick up the phone!

Telephone

Everyone in business today has a plethora of communication channels to choose from, split between analogue (face to face, phone) and digital (email, social media, text, web). But is it a good thing?

As a member of Generation X (roughly defined as born between the mid 1960s and early 1980s) when I started work in public relations the only ‘digital’ communication was the letter (and extreme cases of urgency the fax). So analogue channels were pretty much the sole way of interacting with colleagues, talking to clients and pitching to the press. That meant that you had to develop verbal communication strengths such as being able to respond quickly to questions, give succinct answers and carry a conversation.

And PR was typical of all professions at the time – we were forced to speak to people (even if it was scary) and consequently got reasonably good at it.

But this has changed with the entry into the workplace of Generation Y. Weaned on new technology, these digital natives never had to learn to use email, social media or text as new channels – as far as they are concerned they’ve always been there. Lots of people I know comment on how much quieter today’s offices are as people are simply not on the telephone.

Which brings me to my issue. At the risk of sounding old, Generation Y need to start picking up the phone rather than hiding behind email and social media. It is very easy to craft a wonderful email, hit send and believe the job is done. Research quoted in Fresh Business Thinking found that 1 in 20 18-24 year olds is terrified of using the phone in work – and I reckon that’s a gross underestimate. The survey also found that 40% of 18-24 year olds were made nervous by telephone communication, against 28% of the total workforce.

We’ve all ducked making that call and sent an email instead (whatever generation we are), but here’s three reasons I think it doesn’t always get results:

1              Lost in transit
Most people get hundreds of emails every day and with the best will in the world it is easy to overlook one out of the many, whether deliberately or not. So the end result is that you don’t get a response and either have to re-send the email or try another channel.

2              Lost in translation
Even if everyone in the email conversation speaks the same language the chance of misinterpretation is high. Something that you can explain verbally can appear rude or just unclear, giving the wrong impression or leading to being ignored.

3              Lost in the gaps
With a phone call, or face to face, you need to think on your feet and try and build a rapport. You can change your tone, explain things and actually persuade someone by listening to what they are saying and responding accordingly. You simply can’t do that on email. While someone might come back with a question they are more likely to just hit delete and move to the next email.

I’m not Luddite enough to suggest going back to the days of telephone only communication, but people need to understand that there are advantages and drawbacks to every channel and pick the right one for each particular task. That might be email, social media or text – but it is vital that today’s workforce doesn’t neglect the telephone or we’ll end up as a nation of business mutes rather than engaging communicators.

October 30, 2013 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The power of PR

English: A Syrian soldier aims an AK-47 assaul...

The current civil war and use of chemical weapons in Syria is destroying the lives of millions in that country. With deaths from the conflict estimated at over 100,000 and an estimated 7 million people in need of aid, it is a humanitarian disaster across the region.

But alongside the actual fighting there is an equally hard fought war going on for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world, including voters, MPs, senators and governments. Western citizens and legislators are worried about being dragged into the worsening situation in Syria through military action, despite widespread abhorrence of the use of chemical weapons on civilians and children, leading to indecision on next steps.

This has triggered a media offensive, with all sides using the power of public relations to jockey for position:

Whatever your views on culpability, the winners from this PR battle have been the Syrian regime and the Russian government. By coming up with an alternative proposal to military action (dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons), Vladimir Putin has moved the debate on and surprised the US government’s PR machine. Using the global media cleverly he’s been able to exploit widespread worries about the consequences of war and change the direction of discussions. A combination of message and media has essentially delivered the PR success that has met his objectives.

If diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means, then PR is demonstrating that it is a vital general in the ranks – whether you believe it is used for the right or wrong reasons.

 

September 18, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The wages of spin

Houses of Parliament 1 db

When I tell people I work in PR I tend to be put in one of two groups – either seen as a purveyor of celebrity tittle-tattle or as a slick spinmeister changing government policy. Obviously I do neither of these – for a start I wouldn’t recognise most celebrities and my influence on government is limited to voting at elections. There’s no way I could compete with the likes of Malcolm Tucker when it comes to either Machiavellian behaviour or inventive swearing.

But government spin is currently back in the news, thanks to the involvement of lobbyist Lynton Crosby with Tory election strategy. At the same Crosby’s company works with tobacco firms and fingers have been pointed at the postponement of the switch to plain cigarette packets since he joined David Cameron’s team. Both sides deny any wrongdoing, with health secretary Jeremy Hunt (remember his denials over Murdoch?) saying that he has not been lobbied by Crosby.

At the same time parliament is discussing a new lobbying bill that aims to create a register of third party lobbyists and compel them to publish a full list of their clients. This seems a little delayed given that David Cameron suggested in the run up to the last election that lobbying was ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’.

I’ve got nothing against lobbying per se. If government is making critical decisions of national importance it is vital that they have as much information as possible and specialist experience and knowledge is vital to deliver this. Equally, constituents need to be able to raise their concerns with their local MP, whether they are businesses or individuals.

Where it gets complex and unclear is when things are not open and transparent. For example, MPs that are engaged in consultancy work for shadowy organisations and then introduce helpful amendments to bills that benefit these clients or lobbyists that have dual roles as special advisers at the same time as representing specific business interests.

This isn’t just about PR or spin, but I think we need draconian change in three areas:

  • Not just a register of lobbyists but a blanket ban on advisers working for government and companies at the same time.
  • Given their well above inflation pay rise, MPs should be banned from taking on paid consultancy work with any organisations.
  • There should be a register of lobbyists and their clients, and this needs to be comprehensive and detailed. It needs to be clear who the ultimate beneficiary is of any lobbying, so companies can’t hide behind shell organisations and the length of time and budget involved should be published.

As a PR person who focuses on technology and start-ups I’m tired of being tarred with the same brush as parliamentary spin doctors who probably earn ten times my salary. And this isn’t sour grapes, more that if PR is going to be seen as a vital part of (above board) business, it needs to clear up its act in all areas. Time for trade body the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) to do some lobbying of its own to benefit the entire industry – unless we want to be pigeonholed as Malcolm Tuckers or Matthew Freuds for the foreseeable future.

July 17, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Time for companies to get real

Like a lot of people I start my morning with the Today programme on Radio 4, where a continual succession of politicians, captains of industry and celebrities queue up to be interviewed. If they are lucky they get the mild-mannered Justin Webb or if unlucky James Naughtie or John Humphrys in a particularly cantankerous mood.JohnHumphreys460

As a PR person one thing I notice very quickly is if the interviewee has been over media trained. You can hear the key messages and soundbites being introduced into the conversation (often with a complete lack of subtlety), the practised swerve away from difficult questions and an overall replacement of any personality with a mechanised response.

Obviously anyone speaking to the press (and particularly to Humphrys, Naughtie or Paxman) needs to be trained – the car crash interviews when spokespeople are completely unprepared are toe-curlingly bad. But in too many cases the message overwhelms any personality that the spokesperson has – the lines could be delivered by a robot rather than a human being. This may be fine if the speaker is a third undersecretary at a government agency, but not good if he’s your CEO and essentially the ambassador for your brand.

And this malaise isn’t confined to senior managers and politicians. I see a lot of entrepreneurs and heads of growing companies who shut down when they have a camera pointed at them or a microphone shoved in their face. All the energy and enthusiasm they have for their wonderful product drains away to be replaced by a tongue-tied mouthing of platitudes.

So what can spokespeople do to get their personality and message across? I’m not going to provide a full media training session in this blog but it revolves around five key areas:

1              Preparation
As Ben Franklin said, “Fail to prepare and prepare to fail.” Take the time to research who you are speaking to, the audience of their programme/readership of the magazine. What has the journalist written recently? What is the angle of the interview? If you have a marketing or PR person they should provide you with this information ahead of time – read it well before the interview (not 5 minutes before).

2              Know what you are going to say
Have 2-3 key points that you want to get across, particularly for broadcast interviews. But say it in multiple ways – repeating the same soundbite again and again is going to put listeners/viewers off and makes you sound like a stuck record. Back up what you are saying with examples or figures that prove your case, particularly if they come from a reputable third party.

3              Be human
People relate to people, not to dry words. Use stories and anecdotes that build pictures in the audience’s mind – and make them personal. Things like ‘I saw on my way here that…..’ or ‘I was talking to one of our customers and they said……..’ show empathy and involvement. Just make sure they are true and not PR spin.

4              Be enthusiastic
Particularly for a start-up, if you can’t be enthusiastic about your product, how do you expect others to buy it? You may be repeating details for the thousandth time and feel you  are having to dumb down the language around your wonderful new innovation but explain clearly, simply and with energy what it will do to change people’s lives for the better. You’ve got passion for your start-up – get it across when you speak.

5              Get training
If you’re not sure about how good you are at speaking publicly then make an investment in training. Not necessarily media training, but coaching in public speaking is an invaluable way of building up your confidence and providing methods for getting your message across without losing your humanity.

There’s a reason that the same spokespeople keep popping up on radio and TV – from the likes of Richard Branson to Justin Urquhart Stewart of Seven Investment Management (a mainstay of Radio 5 Live). They provide consistently interesting and punchy answers, without letting the message overwhelm their own personality. It is time for entrepreneurs and spokespeople everywhere to follow their example.

February 27, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Where’s the money going?

In a week that saw the publication of the long-awaited Cambridge Phenomenon book, celebrating 50 years of innovation in the area, some more sobering figures concerning continued investment have been published.

Punting in Cambridge, UK

Punting in Cambridge, UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Research from tech-focused investment group Ascendant found that while generally VC investment is up in Q1 2012, money doesn’t seem to be coming to Cambridge. £307m was invested in tech companies in the UK and Ireland – with £188m going to London-based outfits, and £27m to Irish ones. Cambridge (and Oxford) saw very little new money.

While it can be misleading to generalise based on three months of data this could be a worrying trend as centralised government action to boost London’s Tech City draws potential funding (and talent) away from the Cambridge ecosystem. After all, as Rory Cellan-Jones points out in his BBC Blog, Cambridge has potentially a better chance of creating world-class tech companies than London as it has already developed an ecosystem with research at its heart to feed innovative ideas to the market. But investment funding for Cambridge is key – not just in ‘scientific’ spinouts such as Owlstone and ARM but the more internet-style businesses and the thriving cleantech sector that Cambridge also supports.

So how does Cambridge compete against the media-savvy Tech City community when it comes to gaining funding? I may be biased as a marketer, but really feel that public relations has a strong role to play. There is still a tendency amongst Cambridge startups to treat PR as an afterthought rather than an intrinsic part of how you create a company and drive its success. You need to know your audience and deliver the right message to it at the right time using language they understand to succeed. Otherwise the risk is that Cambridge will become seen solely as the domain of technical wizardry rather than as a driver of customer-focused innovation that leads the UK tech scene.

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May 16, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, PR, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Disconnecting at LinkedIn?

LinkedIn Centipede Participants in the 2010 IN...

LinkedIn Centipede Participants in the 2010 ING Bay to Breakers (Photo credit: smi23le)

We’re clearly doing much more of our business networking online, so why isn’t LinkedIn more of a success? Obviously it has a huge number of registered users (over 150 million globally according to some figures) and revenues last quarter of $167 million, but it doesn’t seem to be able to take centre stage in the same way as Facebook. People use it, but in many cases more out of duty than desire.

So what’s LinkedIn doing wrong? Here’s three key things I’ve picked up, with additional points from an entertaining Pitch and Mix discussion on LinkedIn a few weeks back.

Just not clever enough
Having the CVs and career details of 150 million people should allow LinkedIn to both suggest serendipitous connections and also flag up relevant jobs to members. Yet I tend to get the same new connections suggested, simply based on my existing network. Putting a bit of intelligence behind it how about suggesting people based on my interests, location and profile, rather than just the groups I belong to? And, while this may just be me, the jobs that are flagged bear no relation to my experience level – unless LinkedIn really believes I should start again as a PR account executive?

Push to monetise subscribers
Obviously LinkedIn isn’t a charity, it’s a public company, but over the last year I’ve seen a creeping change as the network tries to push people more towards premium subscriptions. Less information is available for free and all you can see on many profiles are basic details. It doesn’t encourage me to expand my network if I can’t tell if someone would be a good contact or not.

Spam, spam, spam
LinkedIn Groups are a great resource to discuss relevant issues with like-minded people. Or they would be if they weren’t regularly invaded by spammers and people trying to sell me a new website. Ditto random invitations from people within groups that I’ve had no interaction with at all. I know a lot of this is down to those that run the groups but it is LinkedIn that suffers as people abandon potentially useful groups and consequently don’t log on as frequently.

Don’t get me wrong – I believe LinkedIn is a great resource. It just has to focus on its users and their needs if it is continue to grow and provide the right service to the B2B community.

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March 20, 2012 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Duke Nukem tweet is Forever

Duke Nukem Forever 2007 teaser screenshot

Image via Wikipedia

You’d think that PR professionals would have realised that both (a) social media is now a key channel for talking to the press and wider audiences and (b) it is public and once in cyberspace will be there for a long, long time.

But no, following negative reviews of the new Duke Nukem game, US PR agency Redner Group publically tweeted that, essentially, those that gave bad reviews wouldn’t get copies of the next game. The agency quickly realised its mistake, took down the tweet but not before it had been captured by the likes of Wired. The result? Duke Nukem’s publishers 2K has fired Redner, losing the agency its largest client.

What amazes me, beyond the poor judgement in not realising a negative tweet would be picked up, is that this is really poor PR practice. One of the primary functions of PR is to promote a positive image of a client, and in many cases that involves long term relationship building with journalists that may not understand or like your client or what they are doing. Taking your ball away is not only petty but counterproductive as well as it reinforces press perceptions. That for me, is the biggest lesson that PR people need to realise after the Redner debacle.

 

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June 21, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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