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Grown-up Marketing Strategy

14 Jan

My latest musical crush is Austin, TX singer-songwriter named Bruce Robison. I discovered him as the songwriter behind a heart-rending tune by the Dixie Chicks called “Travelin’ Solider“, and last year he put out an achingly awesome album of duets with his wife, the slightly better-known country artist Kelly Willis.

What’s cool about Bruce Robison is that he writes songs like a grown-up for grown-ups. In his song “Just Married“,  a travelogue from beginning to “now” of a thoroughly loving and real marriage, the “now” verse goes:

They say everything changes, and no one’s to blame
But the more things change the more I stay the same
And everything about me that she loved before
Are the same damn things she can’t stand no more.

Right? But just when you think he’s getting all cynical on you, he finishes with:

When my friends ask me how I am today
I just smile and say
It’s like when we were just married

There’s a tension in our lives — between wanting everything to be like it was — bein’ a kid for as long as you can — and adapting to the way life changes. While it seems like every other movie, song and self-help guide glorifies childhood that lasts forever, growing up is complicated, it’s messy and it’s hard. You know the world’s changing…and you may not want to change but you want to adapt, and at the same time hold onto what’s right, or in the song, to ‘a love so true’.

Marketing has this same tension over adaptation and change. Staying the same while everything changes in marketing isn’t just sad, they say, it’s contemptible. There’s a rush to the new, a drive to disrupt. Skim the marketing chatter and you’ll quickly discover that whatever you’ve been doing, you should be doing the new thing, and if you’re doing the new thing, you’re probably doing it wrong. Oh, and someone else is doing it in ways much more awesome than you could ever hope to do, unless you Innovate! Disrupt! Tear it all down and start over.

Here in the real world, the challenge of change isn’t just a matter of rushing to the latest fad. Everyone is busy. Swamped. Overworked. Underpaid. A lot of problems could be solved with one more new hire, and as soon as we finally get the [Marketo-Eloqua-Salesforce-new website-more technology-more budget] approved and finished. We need more leads in the top the funnel, more nurturing in the middle, more demand, more sales lit. The channel needs more attention, the blog needs more content, the media needs answers, we need more case studies, we should be doing more with LinkedIn and Twitter, and are our customers really on [insert hot new social network here], and who knows what else they are saying about us out there?

The reality of our changing media landscape is that it is more additive than disruptive. Every marketing communications channel has it’s place, and we need to drive them all. Web? Check. Solution sheet? Check. Case studies? Check. Daily social posts? Check. Blog? Check. PR? Check. Email marketing? Check. Webinars? Check. Ads? Check. Trade shows? Check. I’m sure we’re forgetting something…check check check.

Grown-up marketing is about more than checking boxes.  Grown-up marketing recognizes that you have to build a foundation from certain universal truths, forsake excuses and easy answers for hard choices about priorities, and adapt. Here are mine:

  • Customer insights drive the business. You’re in business because you understand something about what customers need, and have a unique ability to deliver. But customer needs have a habit of changing. There is a continual need for customer insights to drive strategy; it can come from frequent interaction with key customers, surveys, user councils, analyst reports, focus groups, insightful sales and service personnel, and directed, in-depth interviews.
  • Business objectives drive brand positioning. The brand strategy should flow organically and creatively out of who you are and — more importantly — who you want to be as a business. And the brand should be a platform to drive growth.
  • Brand positioning drives your marketing strategy. Brand positioning is more than a logo and a list of messages. It should express who you are and how you act with your customers. A good brand positioning platform will help you make choices and prioritize how you communicate to customers to drive awareness, preference, demand and sales.
  • Marketing strategy meets the customers where they are. Should you focus on getting into the media? Email? SEO?  Website? How about working with analysts? Facebook? User conferences? Trade shows? Super Bowl ads? The answer is: go where your customers are and give them a clear path to come to you.  It all comes back to those customer insights — how will the market know they need you? Where will they go to meet that need? Who will they ask for advice? This is where you need to be — with the right brand, positioning and message.  Oh, and if they have no place to go — create one!
  • Don’t take it on faith. Measure everything to know if it’s working. When I started out in communications, the most dreaded question you could get was, “how do you know if it worked?” You had to take it on faith that audience reach equaled minds changed and hope that sales or other action backed you up.  Today, we are in the golden age of analytics. If someone asks you if it’s working, you can answer. You can watch web visits rise and fall, and see what they saw and how long they stayed. It’s easier than ever to get direct feedback — through social networks or low-cost surveys or even phone calls and customer visits. Most importantly, use the data — know what’s important, know if it’s working, and adapt.
  • Invest in what’s working. Stop or streamline what doesn’t. Here’s where the hard decisions come in. Because at some point, if you’re checking all the boxes, something has to give.

Stay true to these principles and you won’t chase fads. Your strategy will have a foundation. When everything changes around you, and you find yourself staying the same, you’ll take a breath and remember what’s true, and adapt. Because grown-up marketing isn’t just about being a grown-up. It’s about growing.

Why Brett Favre needs a good manager

25 Oct

Just sat through another thrilling agonizing loss by my hometown Minnesota Vikings tonight.  As I follow the postgame commentary on Twitter, I catch the inevitable tweet — this time, as it happens, from  Steve Rubel, that ‘it’s time for Favre to retire.

I don’t buy it. Favre should ask out of the game? Hell no…players want to play, and I wouldn’t want any other kind on my team whether it’s grade school soccer or pro football.  At the same time, just as players play, managers have to manage.  At some point, when you see your quarterback hobbling across the field and, worse, avoiding sacks with a wild, underhanded fling…don’t you think it’s time to call a timeout? Maybe have a talk with your guy? See if he’s doing OK?  Give him a chance to breathe?

Being a manager isn’t easy.  There are lots off techniques in the toolbox, but they call come down to being able to see the goal clearly, know the path to that goal, and get the best out of your people so you all can get there.  If you don’t like confrontation, you don’t want to manage. If you can’t put yourself in the place of your team, get what they’re feeling, you don’t want to manage.  Same if, knowing where your team stands, you don’t like telling hard truths or making tough decisions.

Seeing Favre at Lambeau last night — alternately brilliant and baffling — reminded me of how important it is to have a manager that will help you look good — and save you from yourself.  I remember what one of my favorite managers said to me when I started at Fleishman-Hillard.  I’d just taken the job from another communications agency, and, eager beaver that I was, I asked him about my billable hours goals.  He said:

“Ken, don’t worry about billable hours. It’s my job as a manager to worry getting you the hours. You just do great work.”

That’s what it’s all about isn’t it?

Blogging Strategy

21 Jul

I keep telling myself that I really have to write a blog post.

It’s been awhile now, and while there haven’t been a horde of communications and marketing professionals beating down my digital doorway for my latest words of wisdom, it is generally a good idea not to let the blog just hang there for months on end.

And yet…

And yet, it strikes me that, “I really have to write a blog post,” is exactly the wrong thing to say.  First, it’s de-motivating.  But more importantly, “I really have to write a blog post,” is bad strategic communications. (do  I also really need to make a phone call? send an email? shake a hand?)

What I should be thinking is, “Who should I talk with today?” and “What do I want to discuss with them?, or even, “What do I need to make happen today?” And then, and only then, should run through the myriad ways that I might discuss those topics with individuals, groups and that horde of communications and marketing professionals who really ought be to be knocking down my digital doorway, demanding the latest words or wisdom.

Well…sort of.

My business development strategy mostly involves great deal of getting out there and meeting people — widening my own circle of connections.  And it’s working. From this standpoint, the blog is secondarily a lead generation tool; mostly, it is sales support — ensuring that when people meet me and hear about me and, inevitably, check me out online, they find not just my LinkedIn profile and what I’ve been impulsively posting on Twitter but also a little bit on how I think about communications strategy, public relations, marketing and the media, paper, web, social and otherwise.

Which means, as it turns out, that I really need to write a blog post. 😉

A breakfast story about professionalism, parenting and keeping an open mind

8 Apr

I woke with dry, teary eyes and greeted the morning pollen dust with elephantine sneezes.  It was the first day back to school for the kids after the long break.   Time to make the lunches.  I cream-cheese and bag two bagels, and add two apple sauces for kids one and three, then pack up a yogurt and grapes for kid two, who doesn’t like bread in his lunch.  I poured three bowls of cereal, and, satisfied, rub my eyes.

Kid three, running late, on his way down the stairs, is hoping there’s a bagel for his breakfast. No, say I, there’s a bagel in your lunch.  How about some cereal for breakfast?  No, says he, how ’bout we “exchange” the bagel in lunch for something else.  My wife says to give him the bagel. I whine, feeling beset on all sides, emotional momentum halted on the way to the shower: “But I was DONE!”

Being “done” is a relative thing. Early in my public relations agency career I was in charge of assembling 50 press kits — a blizzard of paper to be stuffed into folders and shipped to a trade show in Hannover, Germany.  Or was it “Hanover”?  A good hour of angst led to the conclusion that while there are multiple acceptable ways to refer to the city in northern Germany, the datelines on the press releases were  wrong. Holding a standard of professionalism against the noble sacrifice of the trees, I tossed the the press kit and reprinted every page, forever proud that I did right by the client, my own standards and those of my agency.

This morning, we gave kid three his bagel and cleverly repackaged his cereal as “lunch”.  And it struck me that I should make myself some breakfast, a big cup of coffee and an allergy pill, and face the day with a little more of an open mind.

Which communications matter most?

7 Apr

Do some communications matter more than others?  Well…yes.

There’s the big speech by the CEO to the industry group that positions you as a leader.

The message to employees that cutbacks are coming, but we need to continue to focus on the mission.

The blog series explaining your position on emerging industry standards.

The news release that expresses how this technology will change the market.

The employee magazine article on the new line of business…that has to inspire without disheartening those that work on the old stuff.

The customer letter announcing elimination of support for discontinued SKUs.

The whitepaper for the technology crowd.

The email to the disgruntled customer.

The conversations with reporter and bloggers on your latest news.

The online app that you hope goes viral.

The response to the Twitter user who wonders why no one is picking up your phones.

The quarterly earnings report.

The answer to the question, “So, what do you do?”

The invitation to join a user group.

The letter that closes a plant, or cuts back on the health plan.

The words that guide and inspire visitors to the new website.

The email to the latest potential “whale” of a prospect.

The product ad.

The investor presentation on your startup as the ‘next big thing’.

The analyst interview.

The how-to tips for the weekly podcast.

The copy on the packaging…

Maybe a better question would be, “Which communications don’t matter?”

Don’t create marketing…reveal stories

5 Apr

I’ve been writing like crazy today, and I love it. Why? Because I seem to have a modest talent for telling business stories in ways that move people. I love the rush of telling stories and making clients happy with the stories I help them tell.  It makes their jobs easier, and lets me keep this as my job.

One client lets me write feature stories for their company magazine; my style for them is no secret. I interview the people involved, look at what they say, and knit together a narrative that let’s them tell their story.  It’s a style that works as well in feature stories as it does in web copy and press releases.  The goal is not to “spin” a story out of whole cloth, but with words to shine a spotlight on what it is that keeps clients going each day — solving customer problems, innovating, selling products, building a brand, advancing reputation.

I’m a public relations and marketing consultant but I’ve come to believe we spend too much time creating marketing. Instead, we should  invest our time revealing our stories. Pull back the curtain, and you find products that change peoples lives and make their businesses better. You find brilliant scientists, committed customer service reps, passionate sales people, visionary leaders and even innovative marketers.

The thing is, most companies hire sales people and product people and process people and business people — each articulate in their own ways.  They don’t hire writers, or reporters. Business people make stories, and live inside them. Call a writer to hear the stories, bring them out into the open, and reveal the idea at the core.

Do you have communications that matter? Let’s talk?

What Should I Do Today?

8 Mar

I’m reading Amber Naslund’s post on how to do ‘hard work‘ as I try to decide how to start two quite distinct proposals while it’s still morning.  Worth reading if you need a little inspiration and a reminder to get focused, get to work and push the results beyond simply what’s expected (incidentally, it’s also worth a click for the photo of Spider-Man ambling along the sidewalk with his duffel).

This has me thinking once again about one of my favorite client questions on managing communications in a world where there are just too many ways to reach customers — how do I find the time to do social media when I barely have the resources to get the basics done?  The answer, of course, is to rethink “the basics.” But how do you do that?

One of my maxims for clients thinking about establishing their social media and online presence is to re-cast their thinking from “what I have to get done today” — the newsletter, the brochure, the article, the trade show booth, the website redesign — to “what’s going on out there today, what do I have to say about it, and how can I help?”  These questions are likely to lead you toward your audience via communications media and tools that are much more immediate and direct.

For example, the corporate communications to-do list might include:

* Each week, review company news, topics and themes with corporate, marketing, sales and service: what do you want to say today?  Where should we say it?

* Scan industry news, blogs and social chatter — how can we be relevant? What can we learn from customers and influencers today?

* Determine whether and how to respond to social chatter, blog posts, news articles. Respond or elevate where needed.

* Post your news on your website or blog, and on networks where customers and influencers can find and follow.

* Meet with internal stakeholders to ensure in-depth awareness and understanding of what’s happening inside the business. Adjust the message. Take time to review the strategy. What are the tools, media and materials you need to make the message work?

Do all this along with creating corporate presentations, participating in meetings, handling ad hoc high-priority executive requests, communicating across the team, juggling deadlines and actually writing and producing the stories your organization has to tell.

(Are there enough hours in the day?)

If we keep asking questions, the answers should become clear — what works? what doesn’t? what does the customer need? what moves the needle? what are we doing because we’ve always done it?

If you could start over, what would you keep? What would you drop?

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