Monday, June 29, 2009

Don't Shoot! Local Press Tries to See the Money

Here in Newton we're watching a new high school grow up on the site of the old-old Newton High, the one that pre-dates the current brick fortess that we call Newton North High School. If you live in Massachusetts you've probably heard it derided in the press as an overpriced bungle; at $200 million it is the most expensive high school in the state. Of course, it's a high school that is also a vocational/technical school and community center, but everyone likes to call it just a "high school."

In any case, the local paper wants to photograph the site as part of its reporting. Back when construction began Dimeo, the company in charge, told the Newton TAB that safety prohibited them from allowing a news photographer on site. However, they did agree to supply a photos. The company has followed through on that promise, though while you can view the images here you can't embed them or download them to use on another site. Also, you can't view historical images, just those that the company currently wants you to see. A better method may have been to share them on Flickr and allow all of us to download and use them.

Without going into the whole history of this project, let me just say that "trust" has emerged as a major issue in regards to its building and handling. A failed vote to pause the project held back in January of 2007 hinged on the idea that the process was not transparent and that as taxpayers we needed to better understand what we were buying. Also, current Mayor David Cohen kept promising that the price hikes would stop at about $140 million but they didn't. This project did, in short, cost him both his job and his reputation.

So you can imagine that the TAB and its readers would have a problem trusting the company put in charge of this project, so would prefer someone else to go in and photograph its progress.

The issue came up again recently when the city put on its public meeting calendar that members of the Board of Alderman were going to get a tour. Believing the tour was public, the TAB sent a reporter and photographer, only to be turned away, told that this was a private tour, not a public meeting. Dimeo agreed to provide the TAB with a tour another day, but without a photographer.

Today the TAB asked the Mayor about this issue at his weekly press conference. The mayor responded that the photographs aren't necessary for reporting the story.

This brings up a few thorny questions:

  1. Why is it up to Dimeo and the Mayor to decide how the story should be reported? In this environment in which audio, video and text are produced and consumed from handheld devices, how can you put limits on this? In fact, Alderman Ken Parker (who is also a candidate for mayor) used his iPhone to snap a picture and send it to the TAB (picture above). Parker did not, however, challenge Dimeo on its plan to keep the TAB photographer out.
  2. Is this type of photography important to the story? The TAB is free to photograph the construction from just outside the site itself, does it need to be on the property to get the real story?
  3. Should the TAB get access to a construction site that a typical citizen would not? I'm a photoblogger and media blogger who happens to live in Newton. I don't have the readership of the TAB, but should I get access to the site too in order to shoot some pictures? What about Doug Haslam or Sean Roche, both of whom have strong local audiences? In a tweet the TAB says it would support a "pool" situation, but how does Dimeo handle that kind of situation? Also, what if one of the freelancers with the Boston Globe asked to have access, can Dimo keep the TAB out but let the Globe in?
In my mind, a lot of this comes down to an old-school media relations tactic of trying to "control" the story. Mayor Cohen and his main spokesman, Jeremy Solomon, continue to try to control this story by limiting access. Dimeo, like many construction companies, seems to be trying to control its image by taking its own pictures and only allowing people to view them where the company can control the content.

But in today's enviornment control is only perceived. I still believe the key issue with this whole school is trust and if you're a company that wants people to trust you, then allow the users a little more control over the information and content.

Of course, that's only if you want to build trust.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Old Marketing Lessons for New Media

Doug Haslam recently had a difficult experience at a bike store. They called at 5:50 after fixing his broken front derailleur and told him he could pick up his bike, but he had to be there by 6pm. He asked if they could stay 5 minutes late so he could get there. They said no.

He wasn’t happy, won’t go back, and shared that with this Twitter and Facebook followers.

Given that Doug has more than 17,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 1000 friends on Facebook, he’s a guy with influence. Throw in the fact that he’s riding in the Pan Mass Challenge, so spends a lot of time on his bike (and his followers know it) it gives his experience with a bike shop that much more credibility. Since Doug has major social media influence there must be a great social media lesson here.

The lesson for the bike shop? Mind your customer service.

That’s not new. My great grandfather could have told you that from running his kosher butcher in Brooklyn. My other great grandparents could have told you the same thing from running their grocery store on Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury.

The only real difference here is the easy with which Doug could express his displeasure and the number of people he could reach.

This got me thinking about marketing truisms and how social media hasn’t really changed anything about marketing, just the tools.

Lesson: Know whether your goal is awareness or action

To take a line from Law and Order, marketing is broken into two separate yet equally important groups. Awareness, which drives customers, and action, which makes them buy something. (dom dom)

During a recent social media breakfast a quick back and forth erupted between the speakers and the audience about how to track ROI on a social media project, such as Twitter outreach. Many noted how Dell recently credited Twitter with driving $1 million in business over a year and a half. This brought up the question of how well Dell could actually track this kind of information.

At least one audience member noted that by providing codes and other such actionable Tweets, Dell could get a relatively accurate count.

That, replied Michael Troiano, was action as opposed to awareness.

One of the joys of social media is that the broad reach isn't limited to large companies like Dell, but also open to mom and pop operations. I recently got a free 20x30 metallic print from, just by responding to a Tweet for their "Tuesday Tweet" and entering a code.

“Wow,” you say, “what a great use of Twitter!”

Well, yes, it is. This small family-run photo print shop reached a national audience of photo enthusiasts. And there are some great tool-based lessons here in terms of how they targeted key influencers and used them to increase their reach.

But it’s also old-school marketing. They gave away a coupon for a service in order to get information about individuals (like me) with which to sell directly later.

Not so revolutionary as it is evolutionary.

Lesson: Direct marketing gets .5 percent to 2 percent conversion rates

In the old days of direct marketing you would target your market, design a piece of mail collateral then buy a targeted list. After paying for the mailing you’d assess your response and if you came through with 2 percent of your total mail number coming back, you considered it a success.

The same holds true today.

Recently I sat down with a VP of Marketing who conducted what he considered a very successful social media campaign. It utilized a customer who had a strong Twitter, MySpace and Facebook presence, galvanized that user’s audience and drove paid users.

The conversion rate of traffic to paid users, he noted, was about 1 percent.

The main difference here is in the cost of driving that 1 percent. Instead of paying for a list and then paying printing and mailing costs, a company needs only to pay for the creative to get the project moving. Social media lets them build the list themselves while online distribution takes care of the rest.

Lesson: You can no longer make money from content.

The newsroom has never been a profit center, it has, in fact, always been a cost center. I spent many years working at TV and radio stations and I found that most general managers came out of the sales side of the house, not the news side.

The reason is simple: news is the loss leader.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, but traces its roots back to Joseph Pulitzer. While Pulitzer sunk a lot of money into his news operation, and is remembered for his contribution to news, he was primarily a businessman. His newspapers didn’t exist as public properties, they were businesses meant to make money.

Pulitzer (and his primary competitor Hearst) understood very well that if you lower the price of a newspaper to a penny, practically giving it away, and make it a desirable product by filling it with great stories, you could sell ads to the readers. News provided the channel to the people while the people attracted the businesses that would pay money to have access to the channel.

When the price of news production came down so did the exclusive control over that channel, so advertisers no longer needed newspapers (or any other big media) to reach their audience. In fact, a business like Craigslist, taking advantage of the lower cost structure, was in a great position to steal the classified advertising by simply creating a marketplace and growing it over time.

But news does, in fact, remain as a loss leader. Look at a company like Kaspersky Labs which operates Threatpost, a security blog that provides news about the IT security industry, employing many of the same journalists who used to write and edit industry trade publications like eWeek and Information Security Magazine.

Kaspersky doesn’t make money on the news, but providing information does give them a channel that attracts the audience of security-focused IT workers into which they want to sell. It also provides them a level of credibility as well as influence.

The catch for Kaspersky (and for any company) is to properly manage that news channel and not turn it into a marketing channel. For now, they seem to be doing that pretty well.

To be sure, social media caused some fundamental changes in how people interact with information and each other. Individuals, for example, now have a much louder voice to express their gratitude and displeasure. Information production no longer resides in the hands of the few and now does belong to the masses.

However, for marketers some basics still apply. No matter how new the tools, the goals and the expertise necessary to drive customers remains the same.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Solo PR People Unite!

Solo PR people seem to be everywhere in Boston, helping companies from a wide variety of areas. Recently I met solos working with green consumer goods companies, restaurants, food service, technology and healthcare companies.

What solos often lack, however, is another trusted person with whom to bounce ideas.

Stealing liberally from the idea of the Boston Open Coffee, I'd like to announce the Solo PR Practitioner Coffee at Taste Coffee House in Newtonville. Starting on July 7, I'll be there every Tuesday morning at 9am, coffee in hand and chatting with the folks who decide to come.

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Taste has everything we need: good coffee, free wifi, seats and a friendly staff.

Why 9am? Because many of the people I've met have children and 9am lets us get them off to camp, school or whatever, then have an hour or so to talk.

I don't expect everyone to come every week, but hopefully a few will be there regularly.

Come on down!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Why You Can't Rely on Outreach for Coverage

Journalists have always been forced to perform under intense pressures.

No matter how much time pressure or stress I have ever felt while working in PR, nothing compared to writing and producing live television. Knowing that at 5pm or 6pm the anchors start the show and your stuff better be done, it better be good and it better be accurate gave quite an adrenaline high.

Of course, working under that pressure every day gets pretty old.

I can't imagine the stresses felt by today's reporters, who not only need to "feed the beast" that is the news hole, but need to do more stories, as there are fewer people, and do it for less money. Add to that even more deadlines thanks to the deadline-every-second attitude of online news and you have a pretty volatile situation.

Lylah Alphonse compares her 23 percent wage cut at the Boston Globe (which goes into effect today) to being "tossed... a white-hot anvil." Of course, she still has a job, unlike the 8 percent at IDG who were handed walking papers.

It's obvious that this has an impact on media relations, but the details are much more difficult to understand.

Let's assume you produce refrigerator magnets. For a long time there was probably a reporter at a weekly refrigerator trade publication whose job it was to cover magnets and for years you enjoyed some good, regular coverage. Then, as things got tight, that reporter started covering magnets as well as refrigerator handles.

Well, now things have gotten worse. That same reporter is carrying more of the load, meaning that instead of covering just magnets and handles, they're covering everything having to do with the refrigerator door. Instead of producing a couple of stories a week they're now producing two or three shorter stories a DAY about all things on the door (inside and out) of all the refrigerators on the market. To go one step further, their content is probably syndicated through the parent organization to all sorts of appliance magazines, so they'll occasionally report on commercial fridge doors as well as doors for dishwashers, ovens and even washers and dryers.

What does this mean for your magnet company? It means that instead of getting coverage for a lot of your news, you'll probably get one story every 6 months written about the entire magnet industry, and it'll be a roundup. When you hold a user conference the reporters who used to come won't show up. It's not that they don't care, it's that their beats are so much broader that to send them to a single user conference for two or three days on a single company in a single market is not cost-effective.

So, how can you make sure your magnet company still reaches its audience?

  • Start your own publication -- Your website is a great place to start writing about the industry. This can be as simple as a blog written by your own people, or something more complex like a destination site written by journalists. You know all those journalists who used to cover your industry who were laid off? Most are looking for full time or freelance work. Why shouldn't they work for you?
  • Start your own multimedia project -- If you're in the tech world take advantage of your internal developer talent as well as the APIs associated with Web 2.0 to create new and interseting ways to aggregate information about your industry.
  • Bring the news to them -- No matter how much you produce on your own there is still a need to be in the major publications covering your industry. But instead of demanding that reporters travel to your site or user conference, bring the information to them through streaming video or even webinars. Hubspot TV is a great example of a how a company can put out good information that reporters want to use.
Of course, with all of these concepts you need guidance. Just as having Word on your laptop doesn't make you a novelist, having the tools to produce content doesn't mean you and your company have the skills to do it right.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Breaking the News Release Cycle

The single biggest problem facing traditional PR firms as they shift to social media lies in their history. Not that they can't change and not that they lack the talent, but everyone in the organization came up through that organization learning to do things a cetain way.

As a prime example look at the idea of "news." A basic PR tactic is to create a news pipeline with the goal being to keep media interest high. A secondary benefit of this is showing customers and prospects a full press room, so when people peek into the online newsroom they see an active company.

It's a sound tactic and one that has served the industry well for a very long time. There's only one problem with it: it assumes "outreach" to a channel that, if not dead is certainly constricting.

Even attemps to remake the press release don't dissect it entirely, they just try to rearrange the
facts in a way that are more palatable to the changing taste of the percevied consumer of that release: bloggers, podcasters and reporters who now need more multimedia content.

But these attempts don't get at the core of the issue: news is content and should be treated as such. To that end, companies must look at their news pipeline not as a reason to write another release, but as an editorial calendar. The traditional news release, distributed over services such as PRNewswire and BusinessWire are still valid, but only as a single channel of communications within a much broader universe.

One of my favorite examples of a non-news release type scenario came from Google. If you bring yourself back to September 2007 you may remember the anticipation leading up to the announcement that Google would be entering the mobile world. On November 5, Andy Rubin put up a blog post titled "Where is my GPhone?" in which he announced the open handset alliance and Android.

If you read the post it has all the elements that would go into a traditional release. It talks about the partners, the technology and even uses the word "annnoucing." But it was not distributed over BusinessWire, does not have the usual list of editorial contacts and doesn't say "Google, the leading provider of search services to the planet Earth..."

Of course, this is Google and they can do that sort of thing for a highly anticipated annoucement, but for most companies there are pieces of news expected by their core constituancies. Customers may be looking for a product upgrade or partners may want to know about expanded programs. If they have an existing communications channel with which to follow news, then reaching them is that much easier.

The fact is, news is information and can be anything you want it to be. What works for you?