Social Media’s Influential Role

role_of_influencer_todayI have already written about the important role “influencers” play in the purchase process – from the choice of what ice cream flavor to eat, to the complex purchase cycle of an enterprise software solution (link to prior post). This article will take a closer look at how social media has taken on an important role in helping influencers connect with buyers along their purchase journey.

It wasn’t long ago when Facebook was an application just used by college students looking to make plans for the weekend, or to catch up with others on recent news or activities. The amazing growth of members quickly validated how popular and how much value its members place with this social community.

Continue reading Social Media’s Influential Role

Leveraging a Blog in Public Relations

blog_lynchpin_public_relationsIt is no secret that social media has a bigger role in the world of marketing communications and public relations. This transformation occurred due to a couple of trends. Notably, the emergence of a “Web 2.0” world where feedback can be provided (and is expected) directly to an author. There is now an expectation that feedback can be provided easily and immediately. Secondly, in today’s digital world, it is increasingly popular and economically feasible to begin targeting ever-shrinking audiences on a wider scope of topics. The economics of yesterday’s printed media world no longer applies. This has had a profound impact on public relations.

Let me explain.

Magazines and other printed publications are really just businesses that must make money to survive. The traditional business model was to drive a large audience, representing a group of potential customers that advertisers were interested in speaking to – becoming a source of revenue for these publications. The path to growth for this business plan was simple – expand your audience. As a result, the natural evolution was a world dominated by a few, large publications with big audiences.

Then along came the explosion of the Internet and Web 2.0.

Now online “communications hubs” sprang up in all areas, on just about any topic. The online “story telling” world became highly fragmented and dispersed. Getting a story out now requires a bit more work … more publications must be sought and more placements must be achieved in order to reach the same sized audience.

At the same time, the cost structure of media publications changed. Gone is the expense of publishing a magazine on expensive paper with capital intensive printing presses. And, no need to pay for delivery or distribution costs … the digital distribution model is basically free. In this new world costs have dropped significantly. So, it can still be profitable for smaller audience publications to survive with a smaller advertiser, provided they can find one. If a value proposition can be derived that makes sense to both parties, then a business model can still exist. The digitization of our newspapers, magazines and other publications made this evolution necessary and, I would propose, also possible.

The Blog as a Lynchpin of your Social Media Strategy

Given this communications transformation, it has now become critical to have a blog as part of your public relations program. A blog provides you with a platform to support Web 2.0 activities – the ability for your audience to directly converse with you – while at the same time offers a highly focused venue for you to speak on niche or highly focused topics. Given the leveling of the media “playing field” and the need to reach out to a higher number of media venues, each with smaller audiences, it can be a real benefit if you have your own platform to manage these communications. With control, you have direct insight as to what topics are more popular, and what pain points are most “top-of-mind” for your audience, which can then be an excellent source for new articles to pitch to other publications.

From a company’s perspective, today’s digital communications world offers a unique opportunity to build an online presence through a self-managed media platform. Of course, transparency is needed, however, wouldn’t you rather find out immediately if a customer or prospect was upset, had questions or was experiencing some other issue that could be addressed? This type of interaction is much better dealt with through a forum that is actively visible to and managed by a company.

Certainly it is an investment to create and build a blog, especially if you are just starting out. But, this investment will pay off once you begin earning a share of voice in your marketplace. After all, a blog is really the only social media venue where any content can be realistically added. It is pretty tough to explain a company’s philosophy or value statement in 140 characters or less. And, even if you could, how long will that message be visible? Blog posts, on the other hand, last for years, provided each post has its own dedicated page that is searchable on the Internet. Over time, you can gain a considerable collection of published articles that are all in support of your value proposition and reason d’être.

 

Gordon Benzie is a marketing communications professional and business plan adviser that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+

Are Paper-based Communications Dead?

paper-based-communicationsPaper-based media has long played a prominent role as a way to communicate. Go back in time, however, and it could be classified as a disruptive invention. Stone tablets, monuments and cave walls used to be the only options for non-verbal communications, and had done so for thousands of years. Then the Egyptians created Papyrus, which became the new medium to tell a story. This invention dramatically expanded an author’s sphere of influence.

Today a similar transformation is underway. The digitization of communications and knowledge is having a similar, dramatic effect on how stories are told. Access and speed to information has been radically changed – news stories now break in minutes – which has greatly changed how public relations and media professionals work. Marketers must now decide if it is worthwhile to pursue paper-based news publications. How should you grapple with leveraging online PR while not impacting your existing paper-based communications’ effectiveness?

In order to address this question, the right “textbook” answer is to talk with your target audience. What do they currently read? How do they get their news?

Unfortunately, this can be a difficult question to answer. The reason is that the process of how we get our news today has also changed. It is more than simply replacing paper with digital. Let me explain.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the way many of us got our news was by listening to Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings and other news anchormen. They created a predictable framework for us to stay current with the news. CNN changed everything by offering news 24/7. Twitter and social media took this change to a whole new level. Now we learn about news “nugget by nugget.” If a breaking story occurs, those of us with smart phones get tweets, texts or alerts within minutes of the event. Others get news every time they open a web browser, or have a spare 10 minutes, or by still reading the paper over breakfast in the morning. As a result, the answer to the question of “Where do you get your news?” becomes complex – there is no one answer. It comes from a wide variety of sources, which can change from week to week.

As a marketer, this diversity of sources means that public relations outreach just got more complicated. The way your audience gets news has become highly fragmented. And, they have less time to allocate to any single activity. As a result, your marketing communications strategy now must span multiple sources – paper and online – in an attempt to include each of the publications and venues your audience might come in contact with.

It should also now be apparent that traditional methods have lost at least some of their effectiveness. That is why all the big newspapers have invested in building their online presence. Those that don’t will simply be left behind. New approaches are needed to cut through the clutter to gain attention of your audience, at which point they can then be in a position to actually hear what you have to say. When viewed in this light, it is no wonder why public relations professionals have embraced social media as a way to cut through the noise and get their message to a specific target audience. The type of medium isn’t so much of a problem as getting the attention of your audience.

 

Gordon Benzie is a marketing communications professional and business plan adviser that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+

Giving (and Gaining) Value from a Social Network

The_value_of_a_social_networkRecently I wrote about the concept of identifying “personas” or profiles of your prospective customers, as part of your social media marketing program. Once you have completed this task, considerable value can be obtained by leveraging social media to identify where these Personas “live” or spend their free time. The ultimate goal is to build a relationship from a foundation of trust to gain valuable insights as to how your product or service offers the greatest value to the right audience. Further, if done correctly, this exercise can yield insights as to what future direction you should be taking your product roadmap, or what future markets might be most lucrative to pursue.

The first step is to identify a couple of personas and then figure out what social networks these individuals frequent. Here is where a little market research is needed, as well as a few Google searches. Think like your prospect who wants to learn more about how to buy, use or retire your product – given the wealth of information now readily available on the Internet, this shouldn’t take too much time. Once identified, your next step is alignment – becoming a trusted advisor, an educator or a visionary that offers insights to this group of people that they will value and listen to.

One example of how to accomplish this goal is to reach out to community organizers or owners to see if there is some future event you can sponsor or host. You could even reach out to the community to introduce yourself as a brand ambassador, with the intent of learning how to better improve your product. You could volunteer to offer free trials for new products, or paid focus group opportunities. Public relations can play a role here.

This strategy can help draw out early adopters and others that have a passion for your service or product, which in the end, is the perfect person for you to speak with and draw feedback from. If you gather market intelligence deemed worthwhile and execute upon it, this person will likely become a future advocate.

It is as simple and as complicated as that. I say “simple,” in that if you do these steps and your future product vision is in alignment with the feedback, you have a “win-win.” Things get a bit more complicated if a gap exists between your product direction and the feedback you obtain. At that point, you have to ask yourself, what is the right direction? Either you are going down the wrong path or you are speaking with the wrong prospective customer. After all, if you aren’t designing your products and services for end users to gain value, what is the point?

 

Gordon Benzie is a marketing communications professional and business plan adviser that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+

In Pursuit of a Social Media Persona

social-media-marketingIn a prior post I made a few observations on the incredible proliferation of social media, and what a great thing this social transformation has been for marketers. Never before has it been so easy to reach out to a group of prospective customers (or clients, which are different according to Mr. Godin’s recent post) that all share a common attribute, interest or buying behavior. This exercise is a given for anyone writing a business plan or hiring a business plan writer today.

The next question is “what do I do next?” How do I take advantage of this built in community?

The first step is to identify a couple of top profiles or “personas” you are most interested in getting to know. Your objective is to identify what type of person is most likely to gain the greatest value from your product or service, and hence could become a future brand advocate. Ideally, this person will become so passionate about your offering that they become an influential reference to secure new business not only for themselves, but for others in their community – your target audience.

It might be helpful to consider where some of your best customers or clients came from in the past. Were these people that bought your service or product for themselves, or were they buying on behalf of someone else or the company they worked for? Was there a life event that triggered the purchase? Or, was their purchase tied to an entertainment choice? In all likelihood, you will identify several of these personas that make up 80 percent of your buyers, based on the 80/20 rule.

Once you have identified the first profile, the next step is to figure out where this persona “hangs out” in social networks. If they don’t, then social media may not be of much value for you. Assuming they do, your next task to join that community. Here is where a line must be drawn – don’t try to fool others that you are a potential buyer – full disclosure is necessary to build trust into your relationship. Deception might get you one sale, but it won’t build you a following.

Why So Many Social Media Groups?

social_media_choicesI remember back at the start of the 2000’s learning about Twitter and what it could do for marketing. I attended a marketing association meeting at the University of California, Irvine. Over 100 different individuals were in attendance, with each claiming that Twitter was going to change the world. I rushed home to sign up and secure my name (@gbenzie) before it was too late.

Flash forward 10 years, and Twitter has continued to grow and be relevant, even without a solid revenue model. Meanwhile, it seems like another 100 or so social media groups have formed on just about every topic you can possibly imagine. How do all of these sites remain viable and in existence? Who can read all of them?

The answer is “no one.” But, that isn’t such a bad thing.

My thinking on this topic is that social media has become a convenient platform to share a passion. If you have an interest and like to talk about it, then you will really like talking about it to many others. This helps folks to be involved, stay current and aware of changes as they occur. No one can be a member of all groups, and that is fine. Just pick the ones that are relevant to you, and then go after these groups with a passion and pursuit that will be noticed by your peers, prospects and customers. Quality trumps quantity in social media, but you still need both to be successful.

With the incredible efficiency that is now possible by creating a social media group, websites or blog, the cost of joining a new group, adding a new member or maintaining a group has plummeted. In essence, the bar to enter has been virtually eliminated, which has in turn opened the door for groups to form on just about any topic, with many new ones being formed every day.

The Need to Focus

Marketing communications professionals and public relations practitioners must make a decision on how social media should be applied to their marketing or activates mix. Part of this decision involves choosing what social media groups to pursue.

With only a limited number of hours in the day, how much time should be devoted to social media marketing, outreach and interactions? The answer depends on several factors, including where your audience is located and how active they are in these types of sites. Further, it is also dependent upon your own knowledge of social media and how much you are engaged in talking about and sharing the issues facing your target market. Let’s be honest … if you don’t have any interest in the issues facing your prospects and customers, then you might be doing more of a dis-service to try and “pretend” to be engaged. Curating a marketing or public relations program through social media can’t be “faked” very well.

In the end, I would argue that the incredible proliferation of social media sites is one of the best things for marketers that has come out of the Internet transformation. Now there is a way to reasonably and cost effectively reach your target audience in a non-threatening, advisor type of role – provided you are willing to make the investment of time and effort to get to know this audience and the challenges they face.

It is for this reason that Social Media is a pretty important factor that should be a part of every marketer’s arsenal of tools and resources. Likewise, it should be no surprise the popularity Twitter now shares with reporters, writers and public relations professionals … even if they haven’t quite mastered the revenue model. If there is a news story that is breaking, somehow it manages to be trending on Twitter before anyone else has figured out that there is a story!

 

Gordon Benzie is a marketing communications professional and business plan adviser that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+

What Role Does Social Media Play in your Marketing Plan?

Like it or not, social media is here to stay. It has changed the way we communicate, the way we shop and the way we share these experiences. Consumers would rather buy from someone they know. Absent this type of referral, a product or service review by an independent third party is deemed as nearly as valuable and certainly more credible that what a company says about itself.

According to a recent McKinsey research survey, “Social technologies as a group have reached critical scale at the organizations represented in our survey. Seventy-two percent of the respondents report that their companies are deploying at least one technology, and more than 40 percent say that social networking and blogs are now in use.” The below charts published in the McKinsey report demonstrate the consistent growth social media has experienced within the business world.

 

There are two ways you can leverage social media as a business tool: As an internal means to improve productivity and efficiency, and as an external means to further engage with your customers.


As an Internal Tool

Social media can be used as a collaborative platform to better share ideas and solve customer issues faster. Here social media is being used as a shared IT application, no different than the use of browsers for web surfing or applications for word processing. As a collaboration tool, it should be centrally managed with a set of agreed upon usage guidelines to encourage appropriate behavior that isn’t offensive and makes good business sense.

 

As an External Tool

Here is where inflated expectations sometimes lead to unrealistic lead generation, branding or awareness assumptions. The likelihood of acquiring a million users that want to use your product after reading your twitter feed is probably unrealistic, unless there is a highly compelling event that can give you the exposure for such traffic volumes. A more likely scenario is one where your customers reference and, ideally, praise your product or service within their existing social media sites and usage patterns.

The critical question to ask consider is “How easy are you to work with?” How difficult is it for one of your customers to extract data from your service and upload it into their social media sites? If it is easy, then social media might indeed have a role in your future growth. Also, what content are you providing? Is this information that will be helpful for them as part of their purchase decision and evaluation? What is of primary importance, however, is that you think about it now, and that you realize that the way we use social media will likely change over time. Today we are in the middle of a communications transformation. This means you have to be ready to make the time, effort and financial investment to stay current and learn with the rest of the other companies.

Just in the same way that every marketing and business plan should have a competitive review and a strong positioning, companies today writing a business plan or marketing plan must now have a Social Media component. Businesses must now recognize that this is not a trend that will quietly go away. Social media is an important communications vehicle that should ideally be used both internally and externally as part of your marketing and communications plan.

 
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

Applying Humor to Your Business Communications

“Computers are useless.  They can only give you answers.”

Pablo Picasso

When considering the question of “How do I improve my business communications?”, humor may be the answer. The decision should be based on what type of communications you seek. There are several roles humor can take … to grab attention, to make a lasting impression or to build a longer term relationship with your readers. Alternatively, a more serious and “professional” sounding message may be better suited to a more formal communications, in which case humor may not be appropriate.

Let me explain. It might not be the best idea to use humor when talking about a financial institution’s lending practices, or the way that a customer’s money is managed.

When we write or speak to an audience, often we are really trying to build a relationship with our audience in order to convey a thought, a message or a suggestion to purchase a product r service. As part of establishing that message and gaining credibility, it can be quite effective if you are communicating more as a friend or advisor. In that case, humor can definitely play a role in helping to build the relationship, earn trust and communicate on a more personal level.

South West Airlines (SWA) is an excellent example. They have effectively used humor in their verbal communications. Each flight attendant was clearly encouraged by their peers and supervisors to include humor as part of their pre-take off, FAA required announcements at the beginning of every flight.

In today’s YouTube age, there is another incentive: to become the next big hit.  Watch this video for an example of a video that has gone viral, with nearly 1 million hits so far. Interestingly, SWA’s practice began before the age of the Internet. Now these videos are actually a form of advertising, helping to increase brand awareness – and might even generate a ticket sale or two. Clearly, humor can lend itself to social networking marketing quite nicely.

While SWA’s topic is serious, the message has been effectively conveyed in a joyful, playful manner, with short one-liner jokes intermingled with information on what to do in an evacuation, and how the seat cushions also works as a life vest. In the end, passengers felt more relaxed and at ease, trusting that SWA had things under control in the passenger’s best interest while helping to pass the time during the boring announcements that business travelers all know by heart.

TD Ameritrade is an example of when a more serious communications was best. Their selection of Sam Waterston as a spokesperson conveys a serious message that TD Ameritrade is a secure institution you can trust, based on our associating him as being a District Attorney for Law and Order, even though it is just a character he plays on a television show. But don’t expect Sam to crack a joke during his endorsement during the ad.

Similarly, if you are writing a business plan to demonstrate intimate knowledge of your industry or market opportunity, it is trust that you are trying to build. As you might not have the opportunity to build a relationship over time with multiple interactions of your readers and prospective investors, you might only have one chance to make a first impression. In this case, your tone should probably be authoritative and professional, demonstrating you are serious about your business plan and the investment funds you are requesting. Probably not a good place for humor in your communications.

Each of these examples offers best-in-class leveraging of humor – or a lack of it – to accentuate and exemplify business communications. Deciding whether or not to use humor, however, is harder and riskier. Your message must indeed BE funny, or else the opposite effect will occur, possibly even alienating you from your target audience, and clearly hurting your communications objectives.  As it is more riskier to use humor, the choice is often to simply avoid it.

Next time you ask yourself whether humor might be appropriate in your next business communications, the answer won’t come from a computer.  It should be based on your subjective decision, half-based on theory and half-based on a gut feel if it really is appropriate.

 
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

Evolving Social Behaviors Necessitate a Change in Marketing Communications

I would propose a correction to one of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quotes.

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

benjamin_franklin_nothing_certain_but_death_and_taxes_and_technologyI think he missed a third certainty:  technology advances.  Since early inventions such as the cross bow or sword to the digital society of today, social patterns have changed as new weapons, inventions or technology advances are introduced into a culture or society.  Early warring nomads with a weapon advantage expanded their geographical reach to take precious resources, land and women … and as a result, these actions then changed cultures.

Today’s technology advances can be attributed in part to the proliferation of digital data that is increasingly universally available – viewable to an audience of one, or to a much larger group.  The way we interact, communicate and entertain as part of our social lifestyle has changed, and will continue to do so, as a direct response to this technology advance.  As marketers, we must also change.

For example, the changing technology advance of the digital video recorder (DVR) has triggered a new social behavior of fast forwarding through commercials.  Commercial communications effectiveness as a branding or lead generation tool has declined, reducing the return on investment of an advertising spot.

These types of changes necessitate a questioning of prior lead generation and business development techniques.  By examining emerging social patterns, new opportunities for marketing communications can be revealed, often better than the approaches they replaced.  The objective of a marketer hasn’t changed.  What has changed is the medium and method of attempting to influence a purchase decision to be in favor of their product or service.

The key is to reach out to where people are socially interacting, to then be part of that community, which will then assist with your marketing objectives.  This is why social networking communities are so hot right now, and why every marketer is under pressure to understand this medium and figure out how to monetize a revenue model tied to this activity.

Look at the Internet, as a form of lead generation, and an example of how good can come with the digital revolution.  Google is a very profitable company because their ad revenue model is highly effective.  Never before have marketers been able to pin point prospective customers by filtering search activity by selective words and phrases, with very calculated return on investment to better fine tune spend rates and ad performance metrics.

One of the toughest challenges to deal with in times of technology advances is when your own business or industry becomes a victim in the steadily advancing society.  No one wants to be the next buggy whip manufacturer, yet in order for change to occur, there must be a thinning of the herd to make room for a new wave of advancement and enlightenment.
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.