Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What's the Plan, Stan?

As you start your 2012 planning, the first thing most companies do is map out what they want to announce and when.  There are road map considerations, revenue to recognize and industry trade shows to consider as decisions are made and schedules finalized.  These product and feature announcements are the backbone of most company’s announcement strategy for the year.  Add in a few customer announcements and a partner or two and companies think they have a well-rounded, complete plan for the New Year.

But do they really?  Using the model above, the company is setting out to talk about what they make and who they sell to.  That’s clearly important, but is it enough?  That depends on what the company wants to be over the next 12 – 18 months.  If they want to only be a product or technology company, than this is probably an okay strategy to leverage.

If the company wants to be seen as more than just a collection of products and more as a strategic asset to their customers, a viable partner to other vendors and a leader in their industry, then that plan isn’t strong enough to help them achieve these goals.

The issue is that companies are comprised of more than the products they make or the technologies they leverage.  To grow, they need to demonstrate they are good partners and have strong prospects for growth over time.  Companies need to showcase how their products fit into over market trends and provide comment on how their team is the right one to make thing happen.  Companies need to demonstrate the value it presents (as a company and with their products) as part of a wider industry solution and articulate their long-term strategy for market expansion.  Successful companies are a combination of all these things.  As PR people, it’s our job to help them find ways to tell these stories.

The easy answer is to use press releases.  This can be particularly effective when you weave elements of multiple threads into the fabric of the press release story.  Blending these threads into quotes for partners, company executives and analysts is a good way to go as it provides the human context to explain why a company is doing something.

The goal is to move beyond the press release and into the interview itself.  This is where a strong media trainer can help.  It’s one thing to approve a press release quote when reading it but another to practice it.  It’s easy for a spokesperson to fall back into the trap of discussing product features and “speeds and feeds” during an interview and forget to put these product attributes into context.  While your company is proud of what its accomplished, without context the importance of your announcement can be lost or simply relegated to a three paragraph story that simply regurgitates the facts.  The challenge for PR people is to help their spokespeople understand the proper context by announcement, news outlet and reporter.  More about this in the next blog.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

2012 – The Year of Relevance

We’ve survived. The world continues to turn, businesses still exist and despite what some folks would like us to believe, the sun will come up tomorrow. So given that we’ll have a tomorrow to look forward to, I thought a look ahead to 2012 would be relevant.

But to look ahead, we have to examine what led us, and our companies to survive and in some instances thrive, is a very difficult market environment. From my perspective, that key ingredient was relevance.  Companies that did well managed to make whatever service or product they developed relevant to their target market. They tapped into the underlying value that their target customer had and made sure these folks understood how the product/service addressed that value.
This isn’t as easy as it seems.  Most companies tend to gaze toward their own navel when trying to express their products/services value and relevance. They try to communicate what they have done and expect the market to understand why these achievements or innovations are relevant. That’s a huge leap to expect the market to make, especially in a market that is highly competitive and you are dealing with a target audience that is attention challenged.

Think about the communications programs you are working on right now. Take a hard look at the way you are talking about the products/services your company is delivering. Is your material full of acronyms or buzz words that highlight how important you think the product/service is?  Does the content you’ve written in your releases and other material focus on the great things your company has products/developed instead of the problem it solves or opportunity it addresses? Finally, look at your material and count the number of times you tie the great things your company has done with a customer need or specific market trend that makes this product/service relevant. 
My personal view is that the benefit/trend to speed/feed ratio to should be at a minimum 2 to 1. If you can do this, think about how much easier it will be for reporters/customers/partners/prospects/investors to understand why your company, not just the product or service, is relevant. The easier you make it for them to understand, the more likely you are to motivate them to action.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog that talked about the finite attention span of target audiences. With this in mind, as we plan for 2012, companies that don’t adopt a culture of relevance in their communications programs will face a dwindling prospect for mind share and attention. The tough lesson learned in the down markets is that if information is not easy to consume and apply the benefit to someone’s personal or professional life, it is ignored. Ignored equals irrelevance and that is not a viable option in 2012.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Industry Leader of…None

I recently did a search on PRNewswire for certain key terms that I know drive reporters crazy. Companies love to use these terms and PR writers often fall back on them as a descriptor when nothing else is appropriate.  That’s where the problem lies – these words are used as filler when nothing else comes to mind to make a more contextual or interesting descriptor.  So, a company launching a new product becomes an “industry leader” and launching an interesting new product is instead launching a “breakthrough” “innovation” with “advanced” capabilities.

These words might sound good on paper but, in fact, these words have become so ubiquitous that they actually mean nothing.  In my recent research through PR Newswire, I searched for these words in press releases issued on a specific day. The date I choose doesn’t really matter but for records sake, it was October 31, 2011 at 10:54 am. Bear in mind that the search ran was just for releases issued that day before 10:54 AM EDT. These are the results:
  • 1,253 “innovative”
  • 903 “advanced”
  • 202 “global leader”
  • 123 “breakthrough” or “groundbreaking”

We all know that there weren’t 1,253 truly innovative products or services announced on October 31, 2011, by 10:54 AM EDT. There probably weren’t 1,253 truly innovative products announced in all of 2011. So what does that mean for PR writers? It means using the word “innovative” to describe your company’s (or client’s) products isn’t that innovative anymore.

Every industry is packed with vernacular and buzz words that mean something to someone. The problem is when these buzz words go mainstream, they lose the original context that help define the meaning. Writing for PR should be about context, not buzzwords. You need to craft a story that helps readers understand how the announcement fits into their industry, their needs and their lives.

Mark Twain once said, “Don’t say the old lady screamed-bring her on and let her scream.” Translate this into PR writing and you get: “Don’t say the product is innovative, bring it out and tell us how and why it’s innovative.”

This is harder said than done because, let’s face it, not everything that a company announces is as groundbreaking as the company likes to think. That doesn’t mean it’s not news, it just means that you have to work a little harder to make it newsworthy.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ears Not Eyeballs

I was recently asked to speak to a group of small business owners about marketing strategies in a down economy. My talk focused on finding the right media, tailoring the right message and creating meaningful metrics to ensure that message gets through and cultivates the desired action. One of my co-presenters put up two slides that I found interesting. The first one made me think, and the second to think “no duh.” Yes, I know, I’m sometimes amazingly profound.

The first slide had the statement that read, “Content is infinite, Attention is finite.” With thousands of websites, hundreds of blogs and an ungodly amount of Twitter feeds, content is everywhere and about any topic you could possibly want to search. Some folks will tell you that the trick is getting all eyeballs everywhere to visit your website or subscribe to your feeds. But there is a significant problem with this objective. You don’t really know who these eyeballs belong to, or if they even belong to someone you are trying to motivate to some kind of action. Given how much information is out there, how can you really tell if the eyeballs you get are actually paying a blinks-worth of attention?

This is where we come to the Ears Not Eyeballs analogy. These are metaphorical ears mind you, not actual “ears,” but should be thought of as the people that visit any of your communications channels and listen to what you have to say with open ears.

Facebook is a good example of Eyeballs and not Ears for most business-to-business companies. Facebook is a fantastic social media site for people. During the small business meeting, I asked how many of the audience went on Facebook to see pictures of their relatives, catch up with friends and let folks know what they are doing. Every hand went up. I then asked how many logged on to find or learn about products or services that were relevant to their business. Not a single hand went up. And yet there are thousands of B2B companies out there spending a fortune of time and money on Facebook pages.

These same companies, while embracing social media, haven’t updated how they fundamentally communicate. They are still saying the same things, just over a new channel. Their websites, press releases, twitter feeds, etc. are the same inward facing, attribute-laded marketing speak that leaves the reader to interpret how it relates to them. In today’s content saturated world, companies need to articulate how what they offer can make a difference to their target market on a personal and professional level.

We counsel our clients that each communication a company makes should provide, at a minimum, the following three things:

1. How the product/services/thingy will impact the market;

2. How the product/services/thingy will impact the target customer; and

3. How the product/services/thingy will impact company itself.

Answering these three simple questions will help put your communications into context and that’s the goal because context is relevant. Relevance is what helps your target audience put aside everything else they have going on in their heads to focus on your communication. They clear out their kids’ soccer practice schedule, the grocery store list for dinner, the spreadsheet that is due by COB and focus on what you’re saying. And, most importantly, relevance can transform eyeballs into ears.