Blogging as part of a marketing role: Give it the time it deserves

In the corporate world, there are more blogs than ever. Along the lines of 70% of Fortune 500 companies will have at least dipped a little toe in it by this year, according to Wikipedia’s utterly incomplete entry. For a handful of us, it’s an integral part of the job; important internally, important externally, yet so little time allocated as thinking time. That’s frustrated me for a long time.

Blogging is natural for me, but it still doesn’t come as easily as having a morning dump. Seriously. I realise that my entries are rough and ready; I don’t have Seth Godin‘s conciseness, Chris Brogan‘s punch or Jeremiah Owyang‘s insight (especially with my comparison above, for which I truly apologise) but even with my willingness to keep entries in a natural state – thorns, weeds and crawling critters included – it takes some time to cook up. And unfortunately, I don’t believe most marketing teams generally allocate enough simmering time for even the best in-house blogging god or goddess to write something meaningful.

I’m a strong believer that in every business there is a story worth telling, a mistake worth owning up to, a success worth sharing. Or just a story. A really honest, truthful story that allows customers, prospects, fan boys and haters to see behind the marketing pitch. A blog is so much more than a home for your latest press release.

So marketing managers, directors and CEO’s, please remember that beyond the board reports and year-on-year growth charts are human stories which will help your users, current and future, love you more and become true evangelist for your brand, if only you’d open the door and let them in. How good is your relationship with your users? Honest enough to let you see without makeup on Sunday morning?

and they say that the truth will set you free
but then so will a lie
it depends if you’re trying to get to the promised land
or you’re just trying to get by

ani difranco (listen)

Open letter to PR agencies: It doesn't have to be that way, you know…

Recently, there has been a rise in the number of press releases I’ve received, an observation many bloggers around me have confirmed. But these PR emails are accompanied by intros as uncomfortable as the teenage “Will you go on a date with me? Yes/No” scribbled by the nerdy girl who sat next to you in geography class.

Nerdy Nancy wants to go on a dateRanging from impersonal emails to borderline harassment calls and Facebook messages, there just seems to be a plague of poorly thought-out attempts at exploiting the circles of bloggers who are gaining influence in the media by the day.

According to Forrester Research, the general public doesn’t seem to trust us bloggers just yet, and might think we’re still total nerds, but it doesn’t matter, PR agencies have got a total crush on us.

So this is my open letter to all PR agencies we have had the (dis)pleasure of dealing with recently.

“Dear PR agency guys & gals,

We’re all very flattered that you fancy us now that we’ve gone from being viewed as the losers who spend too much time on their computers to being the cool kids with influence. We appreciate it’s difficult to accept that bloggers were never in the curriculum in your marketing theory classes, and that you feel the need to poke us with a stick while observing us from a distance, like you’re the Steve Irwin of public relations and we’re a wounded python. But I’ll let you in on a secret: We’re actually really quite normal. And we don’t even mind being treated that way.

I won’t be pointing fingers and naming names today, but I’ll use a few examples to illustrate where you unnecessarily complicated your own lives recently. If you recognise yourself, feel free to either take it as a call to action to review the way things are done, or roll your eyes and mutter that I’m an idiot. Don’t worry, I’ve got thick skin. But if you choose to do the latter, I may just name and shame you next time you stick your foot in stinky cow dung.

Exhibit A: The Lazy Approach

“Hi,

Please see below for news on this weeks launch of the [Product Name], which I thought would be of interest for the blog.

Let me know if you need any more info.

Thanks,

R”

Now, not only did I not give permission to R’s agency to email me, but R here failed to call me by my name (it’s in my email address, can’t miss it), use my blog’s name (also in my email address) and didn’t notice that I’d already reviewed the viral campaign for the product they’re pawning. Already, 3 strikes, you should be out.

Below that dull message is an equally dull press release, using 3 different fonts and sizes, a LOT of ® characters, no real call to action, no freebies/samples offered and a link to an entirely Flash-based website with no HTML alternative. What the hell good is all that tripe when I’m on my iPhone?

Honestly how this PR agency received two PR Consultancy/Agency of the year is beyond me.

Exhibit B: The psychopath

Blogger pal receives mail from PR agency who wants them to show up at a product launch in exchange for a measly fee and liveblog the event like it’s the Spice Girls’ reunion tour. Blogger takes offense (rightly so) at the suggestion that his readership can be bought for the price of a cheap pair of shoes and chooses to ignore PR agency.

PR agency follows up deluge of pushy emails with “Email broken – Msg me your phone #. Love facebook!” via social networks. Next thing you know, they’ll be outside knocking at the window as he gets out the shower.

Creepy. Not good. Sometimes, the non-verbal signal should be enough to tell you to back off.

Exhibit C: The foreign agency

“Hi,

Hope you would forgive the intrusion.

We have been working on this for a couple of months now and are NOW live. Allow me to present Plooshh [name changed for anonymity] – why the extra ‘h’? We think it’s sexy! We think it gives you an extra H – oops, ‘extra EDGE’ we mean. :)”

And it continues on for two full screens worth of awkwardly friendly banter, filled with bright coloured large fonts, caps-lock sentences and extraneous exclamation marks. The English flip-flops between too formal and chat-speak, a bit rough ’round the edges yet endearing.

Exhibit C is the product of an Indian agency jumping head-first into Web 2.0. Nothing wrong with their pitch, everything strikes me as being done textbook-style, ticking every box. But it’s soulless. Again, there’s no attempt to get to know the bloggers they approach, opting for a scattergun mail-out. Throw enough stuff at the wall, something’s bound to stick.

While this wasn’t a particularly thrilling email, I suspect that once these guys catch on to the nuances of public relations in the new media age, their willingness and motivation might allow them to overtake many Western agencies who otherwise had a headstart in the game.

Jury’s Verdict:

Toilet cat is guilty! PR agencies are too!While a few PR agencies have embraced social media and are actively engaging with the communities their clients have an interest in, most have totally blown it so far. They’re as guilty of carelessness as this cat is of drinking out of the toilet bowl.

But hope is not lost. Assuming said agency is willing to put some elbow grease into their day’s work, I dare say there is a huge amount of potential for a beautiful relationship to blossom between PR people and bloggers.

So dear PR guys and gals, behave in a natural and human way; you’ll resonate emotionally with us. Emotional resonance is invaluable; we feel that we can become friends and are far more willing to listen to you, even when the product you’re pitching isn’t 100% on target.

I appreciate that we are the means to an end, helping you reach the (sometimes unrealistic) targets set by your client, but remember that we’re all human – yes, even us weirdo bloggers – so treat others as you would like to be treated and we’ll be more than happy to give you a hand.

In Summary

Your future cheat-sheet.

Do…

  • Have a Twitter account or personal blog where we can find out about the real you.
  • Have a product geek or evangelist we can speak to and quiz without getting the canned marketing answers (Carphone Warehouse and O2, I’m looking at you, guys. You could have definitely done with a public-facing real-person on the days surrounding the iPhone launch.)
  • Participate in events in an altruistic way every so often. We’ll get to know each other, and it’s bound to be good for your karma.
  • Put some chili in your cornflakes; By that, I mean, have genuine energy and passion about your client’s product. If you don’t get up in the morning loving your job, maybe you need to find something else to do.

Don’t…

  • Try to buy our participation to your event. Telling me you’ll pay £150 to show up on Thursday morning with a video camera for a “secret launch” isn’t social media, it’s cheap labour and fake hype.
  • Send us a stock press release with an intro that betrays you’ve never even looked at our blogs
  • Always play it so safe that we’d rather read the back of the cereal packet than your press release. Have some balls, and hey, have some fun!
  • Don’t run with scissors Be afraid of asking a couple of bloggers for a pint to bounce some ideas. Most of them will be happy to help you out!

I’d love to hear what PR agencies or other bloggers would like to add to this. How’s your PR-to-blogger relationship going?

With much love & geekery,
Vero”

Aroma-first thinking

What’s the first thing you notice when you approach a Starbucks store? Almost always, it’s the aroma. Even non-coffee drinkers love the smell of brewing coffee. It’s heady, rich, full-bodied, dark, suggestive. Aroma triggers memories more strong than any of the other senses, and it obviously plays a major role in attracting people to our stores.

Keeping that coffee aroma pure is no easy task. Because coffee beans have a bad tendency to absorb odors, we banned smoking in our stores years before it became a national trend. We ask our partners to refrain from using perfume and cologne. We won’t sell chemically flavored coffee beans. We won’t sell soup, sliced pastrami, or cooked food. We want you to smell coffee only. [Solving Starbucks Problems, Idea Sandbox]

However, since Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz said this, things have changed. Coffee comes pre-ground, “FlavorLock” packaged for a longer life and, in some regions, food is being cooked within the store. The smell of fresh coffee, which used to wrap itself around you, inviting you inside, isn’t as omnipresent as before. Where’s the aroma? Where’s the theatre of beans being ground daily in front of you?

There’s no use pretending, human beings are all but rational, and your products need to have a spark that makes us feel special – whether it’s the aroma wafting from your bakery or coffee shop, the handcrafted feel of your beauty products or the shine of your electronics.

What are the key emotional deciding factors for your product or service? Why did your customers cross your doorstep the first time?

No aroma, or no enticing factor, means that no new customers being led in, but it also means no emotional reminder for your previously loyal users. The business decisions you make shouldn’t steer you away from the source of that emotional tie. Your Aroma doesn’t have an ROI attached to it, but you need to take it in account when making decisions. Don’t compromise on it.

We love to believe in stories that match our worldview. We like to buy from our local cheese shop rather than buying it pre-packed from the supermarket, even if it involves going out of our way on the way home. It’s more “real” and we feel we’re helping local business. Sometimes, that worldview is a romanticised truth. We like to think of Starbucks as fair trade, even though most people order regular non fair trade coffee.

It makes us all fuzzy inside.

So how does your product make users feel fuzzy inside like the smell of fresh brewed coffee in the morning?

[Note: This post was salvaged from a project I started last year I never fully set live, so you may have spotted it before… Still as relevant as ever, though.]

BMW doesn't get User Generated Content

User generated content is all the rage these days, and every company wants a piece of the action. Some companies understand this concept and act on it fabulously well, but others fail miserably at understanding the basic ethos of UGC.

A mutually beneficial UGC campaign will…

  • Give the company access to a vast creative resource pool composed of hundreds, thousands or millions of users
  • Give the user credit where due for the content creation through backlinks, social recognition and general whuffie
  • Enable the company and the user to build a closer relationship, a stronger brand link and, hopefully, nurture the user’s passion for the product/service

Put simply, it should be a win-win situation. But today, a friend of mine received a message via Flickr from the agency in charge of promoting BMW USA, praising one of the photos of his 3 Series.

“We are contacting you on behalf of BMWUSA.com to inform you that BMW is developing a website that showcases the photography and videos of BMW customers and fans on BMWUSA.com. Your photos were found on flickr and identified as possible photos that could be used on this site. These will be displayed anonymously and your name will not be associated with them. If you agree to give us permission to use your material, we will need your signature on a Photo Release Form. We are only interested in your images of the 3 Series. 

Please see below for a link to download this Release Form online. 
Please fill out the form [PDF here] and send it back to xxxxxxx@dotglu.com or fax to 212-XXX-XXXX. 

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask.
Thank you very much, and we look forward to showcasing your material on BMWUSA.com.”

So to reiterate:

  • The photos will be posted anonymously, giving the photographer no recognition by name, backlinks or otherwise
  • BMW gets unlimited permission to use the photos in whatever marketing or promotion they wish

Ahem, did I miss something here? It’s a pretty crap deal for the photographer who is, and has been, for years, a faithful BMW owner and promoter. Yet BMW doesn’t give him anything in return for his undying love. This company has pretty deep pockets and a huge following, so it’s bound to be able to offer something exciting in return, no? A backlink to the source doesn’t cost a penny.

I’m sure this agency means well and may get UGC one day but, at this point in time, I advised my friend against entering this one-way succubus relationship and let BMW know that he was keeping the rights to his pictures, thank you very much.

Trust by Positive Brand Association

A few moments ago, I subscribed to the 4mations “Keep me updated” mailing list, out of curiosity of what it’ll turn out to be (how did I get there anyway?!)

Campaign MonitorI’ve got a past in email marketing so even though that subscribing should, in theory, be fine, I hesitated. I’m aware of how dodgy or how careless/naive some senders can be – recently, it took me a battle with an agency that shall remain nameless before they acknowledged that I’d requested repeatedly to be unsubscribed, so things like that peeve me off.

But I subscribed. And it was immediately followed by the familiar green tick mark from Campaign Monitor confirming I was subscribed.

And you know what? I definitely had a fuzzy feeling inside thinking “yup, I can trust this sender. Even if they write total rubbish, I’m confident I can unsubscribe, should there be a need.” I bet you I would’ve bypassed the hesitation had the subscribe field been accompanied by the Campaign Monitor tick. Think that could help increase subscriptions or give users confidence?

What brands do that for you? What logos give you the confidence to hand over money, personal details or your precious time?

Why Twitter is so unbelievably awesome

Anyone who’s witnessed a typical weekday for me will have noticed my slight addiction to Twitter, a service that simply can’t be explained and has to be experienced.

But in my attempt to justify the thousands of updates I’ve posted on it, I’ll highlight a few amazing ways Twitter has helped me and those around me this week.

  • It helped me discover how other bloggers felt about being accosted by PR agency, resulting in an article for The Blog Medic called “Marketing Ethics: Ten ways to piss off a blogger”.
  • An ad hoc conversation led to a friend getting a job offer, and the entire conversation up to scheduling an interview call happened over Twitter.
  • It allowed me to find a couple of new contracts for Pepsmedia redesigning blog templates & site launches.
  • Since SXSW, I’ve managed to stay in touch with many of the lovely people I met there without going through the usual “ok I’ll reply to that email later”, where later becomes never. By keeping it bite-sized, Twitter makes it easy to stay in touch.
  • I’ve found amazing support for the idea of SocialMediaCamp in London in July through fellow Twitter users who are interested and can provide skills and contacts I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.
  • A few people offered sound advice with regards to the process to setting up a limited company, again calling on the experience of others.
  • It was the fastest channel through which I heard about Russell’s decision to stop developing Mowser on Monday night.
  • It’s a great way to swap kitty photos with Mel Kirk 🙂

So there you go, it’s a business resource like no other, a great communication tool and an entertaining place to have water cooler conversations with like-minded people.

Gary Vaynerchuk: Tech World 2008 = Hip Hop 1985

Gary Vaynerchuk, for those who don’t yet know him, is the guy behind, in front and all around Wine Library TV. He’s a raving looney, a totally loveable geek but most of all, a rough diamond of community relations amongst the world of overly polished marketing bullshit. He says things as they are and has marked me enough during SXSWi this year that I’ve got a couple of things he’s said up on my board of inspirational quotes in the office. (Thank you Gary, genuinely!)

He also agreed with me that making your own wine is a bad idea, mmmkay dad?

PS – I want my own WLTV sweatband bracelet thinger!