Archive | May, 2008

The 1990’s Internet: An Appreciation

30 May

I was listening to Richard Clarke’s chilling talk about how easy it was to hack into the Pentagon’s computer systems back in 1997 (and he says things aren’t much better today)…and about digital picture frames pre-installed with pernicious viruses…and despite the fear and paranoia that thought generated, I also found myself reminiscing about 1997…and earlier…when the Internet was new, and merely putting a website out there was a newsworthy event… I starting thinking about:

Mozilla:  Remember watching the adorable lizard slowly form on the first browsers, line by line, like they were sent to your screen by a Star Trek transporter in very slow motion?

PointcastIt was the bane of the IT department, but this progenitor of ‘push’ technology was notable for how it prepared us for the constant news crawling across CNN, MSNBC, ESPN and their ilk.

Pathfinder: Anyone remember Pathfinder?  It was this massive portal to the news properties of Time Warner — Time, Money, People.  It was one of the first efforts by a major publisher drag themselves onto the web.  It also was clunky and boxy and massive and almost impossible to navigate.  Amazingly, the URL still exists!  The first humor website I came across on the web. It was sort of a bewildering hybrid of The Onion and something not really that funny. But whoever wrote it was out there…doing the best they could.  Then it disappeared, never to be seen again.

StarTribune Online… and every other newspaper that has a website:  I remember when my local metropolitan daily, the StarTribune, went online, they announced it with this massive ad campaign that featured billboards with giant smoking three-dimensional spaceships.  I think the idea was that was the place you would go if you were an alien who crash landed in downtown Minneapolis and needed to know what to do next. 

But you know, just about every newspaper in the country bowed to the inevitable and went online, despite that fact they had no clue how they were going to pay for their shiny new websites or replace the employment ad revenue rapidly fleeing to and the classified ad revenue rapidly not being spent on craigslist… et cetera. 

And yet, we love reading our news online, and how the stories they write about us and our clients live on on and on…  I guess what I’m saying is that we all owe our daily newspapers a hearty thank you for their selfless sacrifice. 

That’s mine for today…what are your 1990s Internet memories?


You mean… I should READ business books?

22 May

I love Seth Godin’s blog.

His posts are short.  His style often translates a small experience into a simple truth. And not just a simple truth, but a useful truth.  Something I can work with.

I also hate reading business books.  You can get the point in the first chapter (if not the introduction).  The rest is fluff … I finish the books just to say I finished them.

So here’s the thing: Seth knows this (can I call you Seth, Seth?):

“The recipe that makes up just about any business book can be condensed to just two or three pages. The rest is the sell. The proof. The persuasion.”

The point:  you don’t read a business book for the bullet points.  You read it to make change.  You learn new stories and you see how you can make something new part of your story.  Heck, maybe you’ll even make your business better.

Heck, I may even have to read his books.



Reflections on Brand, Medium and Message

21 May

Some semi related stories on my mind today…

Back when I was a young PR agency pup, trying to establish our agency’s tech practice, my firm had yet to purchase a digital projector. We did our new business presentations on transparencies.  It just about killed me — how were we supposed to win tech business when we ourselves were so clearly tech followers.  It finally came to a head when a prospect said that they had a hard time choosing between us and a competitor … but all things being equal, they went with the firm that used the projector.  

The other day, I was talking with a client about launching a website for a business where building consumer community is essential.  The client has developed a terriffic network of dozens of interns working on various aspects of company marketing.  So he suggests a new tactic — what if we asked the interns, already engaged in social media outreach, to each start a blog, talking about our issues and linking back to the site? If nothing else, there would be search engine marketing benefits. 

I tend to have gut reactions to new ideas.  Then I figure out how to make them work.  So my gut reaction is that I’d hate to be a part of foisting dozens of junk blogs on the world.  My next thought is “why not?”  Why not have dozens of bloggers — clearly associated with the company — talking about the issues important to them and their work?  Why not make their ideas  on the company and its issues accessible from dozens of directions through the interns’ networks?

The media is indeed, at times, the message … and even, sometimes, “the brand.”  How you communicate says a lot about what you communicate.  Sometimes, it can even overshadow the message. 

Any stories to share?

The PR Agency of the Future

13 May

There’s a friend and former colleague of mine (let’s call him ‘Jon’) who I’ve spoken to  often about the future of the PR agency, back when we were both at a very large PR firm.  His take was this: computers and the Internet have taken away the grunt work of public relations — media kit stuffing, faxing, mailings, field trips to the library.   

What clients want is experienced people you don’t have to train.  They don’t have the budgets or patience for the big agency to be a training ground for young execs — they want top people day-to-day.  I tend to agree. 

The logical result is the network of independents — a diverse, virtual network of experienced independent communications professionals on call and willing to dive in together or separately to meet the clients’ needs.

But Adam Singer’s comment to an earlier post of mine got me thinking about a more radical model.  Adam wonders:

What if at a PR firm, everyone was an influencer in some sort of niche.

I think this is another valuable reason all Marketers and PR people should have a blog.

My first thought was, well, that’s not a PR firm.  My next thought that you’d really be blurring a lot of lines as an agency — between client and agency, personal and professional, honest opinion and taking sides for a fee.

But what if you were to create a network of ‘blogger consultants’ — experts in a range of specific fields — from, say, food marketing, to consumer marketing to high-tech to the utilities industry — who are willing and able to consult with clients on their communications issues?  Would that magic line of credibility be blown if, even in a completely open and transparent way, these bloggers advocated for their clients — from providing listings and links to their press releases to periodically commenting on their news and issues — again, with no pretense or illusions that they aren’t a paying client? Or what if they just blogged about potential story ideas that they’d hope other bloggers and professional news people would pick up — kind of an open pitch?

What could the blogger consultant be able to do this and retain credibility in his or her field?   More importantly, how much value would this be to clients? Is anyone doing this kind of thing already?

I put this out there and openly beg for comment — I’m kind of fascinated at the thought and curious to hear what others think?

Let’s discuss! 

The Push and Pull of Privacy

12 May

So this morning, I read Max Ross’ article on MinnPost.  The article is a a nice, simple explanation of what’s happening today in online advertising — notable for its lack of both hype and fear mongering.  It concludes:

“”f we want to use the Internet at all, we must reconcile the fact that someone or other is going to be tracking our activity, and using our apparent interests to fashion advertisements just for us.

“Maybe the biggest illusion of the Internet isn’t that advertisers work slyly behind the scenes, trying to hide the fact that they’re there. Rather it seems the biggest misconception of the online world is that there’s any privacy at all.”  

He’s right.  For the most part, online marketing is right out in the open.  Cookies are a boon to most of us — they make it so we don’t have to log in every time they visit a site important to them.  And Ross cites a 2006 study by the Ponemon Institute and Revenue Science that “found that 63 percent of consumers prefer advertising based on their interests; 55 percent of those surveyed said that relevant advertising “improves” or “greatly improves” their overall online experience.”

Some might look at this as the consumers being lazy — or just giving up in the face of speed and convenience.  In my own work and home life, I’m OK with the ads that rest on the margins of the content I want, and I’ll accept it as the price I have to pay to get web services for free.

My take from years in corporate America has always been that online personalization is fine because it’s largely simulation of personal service run by software — the likelihood is low that anyone would be interested in me as an individual among untold millions is nearly nil. 

But this morning, I also had the chance to skip a May 5 BusinessWeek piece on Tanya Anderson of Portland, Ore. who found herself at the end of the RIAA’s anti-file sharing barrel and has managed to turn the tables because, lo and behold, she didn’t do it.  The RIAA’s people work with internet service providers to connect IP addresses with file sharers.  But, the article notes,

“…One IP address may be assigned to a device such as a Wi-Fi router that can be used by several people at the same time to access the Net wirelessly. So if a visitor or a neighbor decides to steal music over the Wi-Fi network, the homeowner would still be fingered. In addition, some people have IP addresses that change every time they log onto the Net, so the IP address you use in the morning could be assigned to your neighbor that afternoon. Verizon and other Web service providers try to track who has which IP address at what time, but their records can be faulty.

“More troublesome, sophisticated computer users can “spoof” IP addresses, or use one assigned to somebody else. They use a simple piece of software to forge the IP address on packets of information sent from their computer, much like someone who puts an address on the back of an envelope that isn’t theirs. The people most likely to spoof are the very tech-savvy youngsters also mostly likely to be stealing music.” 

Anderson’s lawyers found the likely culprit in this mistaken identity.  But it isn’t so easy. And however unlikely the odds are that some lawyer or regulator turns their gaze on you personally, they’re 100% when it happens.

So what are we to do… as citizens and as marketers? For me, being online is part of my business and part of how I manage my life.  I won’t retreat, from this, but you have to keep an eye out.  From a marketing standpoint, I believe the answer is to give consumers as many choices as you can about how they allow you to interact with them — what you can know and not know — and abide by those terms.  In the abscence of regulation, transparency is the only protection against the inevitable backlash … and it’s the right thing to do.

Influencer Marketing and PR’s future — Courtesy of Media Blather

7 May

I used to start new client conversations — particularly with technology companies — with a discussion of what we then called “the cascade of influence” — that set of influencers from tech gurus, industry analysts, conferences, trade shows, and journalists who influence corporate reputation and buying decisions for customers and prospects.  Influence, we thought, would flow down a neat little staircase to the customer. 

Today, it’s no longer a neat cascade (if it ever was), but more of a web of influence, one that connects to our sphere of professional life among friends, colleagues, professional media, bloggers, websites, experts and others. 

Paul Gillin and David Strom of Media Blather — a weekly-ish podcast that’s worth a listen — spoke to Nick Hayes last week, the co-author of a book called Influencer Marketing, that offers a compelling and, perhaps, controversial take on how to move people toward buying decisions.

Hayes’s thesis is that the influence of the broad range of non-profits, management consultants, integrators, associations, regulators, user groups, etc.  makes up 50% of the buying influence on any given purchase — or more.  These new influencers aren’t necessarily publishing anything, they aren’t journalists or analysts, and often “prefer to be under the radar.”

Hayes advocates that PR people be deployed to go out to broader organizations beyond the journalists and analysts — moving PR from “press relations” back to “public” relations.  It’s a practice that takes a whole new set of skills, but builds on the ones we have today — building one-to-one, personal relationships, personal relationships; the ability to identify the needs of an audience, and communicate a compelling story with them.  

The answer to ‘influencing the influencer’ in this world, in other words, isn’t just a focus on media relations, analyst relations, or blogger relations.  It’s understanding the environment in which customers make their decisions. It’s giving marketers and PR professionals the mandate and responsibility to build relationships with a wide range of people and organizations who are important to the company’s sales success.

Hayes’ advice: PR should go back to its roots — find out how customers make their decisions.  From there, it’s relatively easy to discern the web of influence that will impact customer decisions.

Listen here and tell me what you think.


Media Romp

5 May

This morning, let’s take a drive through the sticky business of The Newspaper, shall we?

Our tour today takes us to my hometown StarTribune newspaper, one with a fine jouranlistic tradition, one of late put in the service of an advertising strategy and debt payoff — never a great combination.

Today, the StarTribune’s investor-owners are in their own media hotseat , fending off a New York Post story that claimed the paper wasn’t paying its debts, and claiming that the paper on the brink of bankruptcy.  Their response:  No, but we’ve hired the Blackstone Group to look at our options.

The problem for the StarTribune is simple:  Advertising is going elsewhere. In a media environment rapidly moving online and to search, newspapers are stuck with a business model that is just not working.

The recent State of the News Media 2008 report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism is telling.  On advertising, the report quotes a major media buyer:

“We used to be in the trucking business. We used to take ads and commercials and deliver them,” says Charlie Rutman, CEO of North American Operations at MPG, which controls over $3 billion in U.S. ad spending annually.

While ad executives know that trucking analogy is no longer accurate, they aren’t really sure what is replacing it.

Craig’s List, online ad sales and employment websites have decimated the the classified market.  And according to the report, newspapers’ print versus online ad ratio still lingers at around 90 percvent versus 10 percent.

The StarTribune is in the same trouble — according to today’s article, as of March 31, circulation dropped 6.7 percent from the previous six months, annual revenue dropped $75 million between early 2005 and early 2007, and classified ads were half the level they were at in 2000.

The question to me isn’t so much one of how their ads are going to make up for the loss, but how their going to continue supporting continuation of a tradition of good journalism in this community — and every other community that has enjoyed the benefits of having good a good paper in town.

The StarTribune’s most recent change in strategy was to create localized sections for various suburban regions.  That strategy seems to be sagging.  While there seems to be strong coverage lately of Edina parents complaining about families wanting to transfer into their great schools, my Twin Cities West section today has these front page stories:

> Someone in Rice County won the lottery.

> Committees talking about tackling Downtown Minneapolis crime.

> A Hopkins school teacher winning teacher of the year (nice, but should have been on page 1 — maybe in place of the ‘what kids are reading’ list from the Washington Post).

> A story on teens in Hudson, Wisc. putting photos of themselves unclothed online, based on no discernable news hook.

I’d be shocked if these are the kinds of must-read, hyper-local stories that will hook readers and draw ad dollars (and I promise to read this section the rest of the week and eat my words if I must).

The StarTribune has continued to try addition by subtraction — the number of excellent journalists no longer working at our local papers could make for a great news operation.  As we’ve seen across multiple industries, you thrive and grow not just by cutting back, but in doing so, concentrating on your core — doing what you do best and doing it better than anyone else.  It may require the painful process of starting over — recasting the organization not around generating double-digit profit margins but on how, if you were starting today, would you create a sustainable organization to support excellent locally based journalistm.

And this is a time when the values of professional journalism — of professional news gathering organizations — have never been more needed.  We need folks who can ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ Who can question authority and call out those in power when their abusing them.  And, frankly, we need journalists who are professionals — who can cover local news with more commitment and perspective than your typical citizen journalist.  Whatever their many faults, professional news organizations are structured to cover news, get answers, check facts and most always get their stories right.

Call me old fashioned, but there’s a need for this.  There may not be a need for trees to fall, factories to belch smoke and waste and trucks to roll hither and yon just so a folded sheaf of smelly ink and newsprint can land in my mailbox every morning, but there’s more need than ever for the content and commitment it represents.

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