In marketing, companies have made the journey from being brand-focused, to now being ever more consumer-centric (didn’t make this up; I heard it as recently as this morning in a podcast with Saacthi CEO Kevin Roberts.) In practice, companies are increasingly looking to create outstanding products and services that are easy to use or that match the most intricate customer needs. By doing so, they can instill in their customers a sense of loyalty which a branding approach alone could not achieve. Consumers are more cynical now; creating a fantastic brand which conjures up abstract images (I too can be the Marlboro Man if I smoke Marlboro reds) won’t work on its own anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. Branding still matters. But people expect the world, and no amount of smart branding can prevent a non-customer-centric company from appearing distant or to fail to meet the “what’s in for me/does it really do everything I could possibly want” tests.

Can we transfer this thinking to the world of issues, where companies and other organisations don’t try to sell directly but are looking to influence the general public and other stakeholders in order to showcase their activities in a positive light?

Certainly. Organisations need to be customer-centric on two fronts now: in terms of the tangible goods and services they produce, as described above, but also by matching customers’ demands for organisations to do good things and for their goods and services to be more sustainable. They reward companies that are doing their bit for their communities or the wider environment; to the expense of companies that aren’t although they might make fancier shoes (or whatever.) What’s more, this trend is accelerating, and customers are also citizens whose whims legislators are responding to at a fast growing rate.

So what should you do to remain customer/citizen-centric on both fronts? For a start, do the right thing, full stop (or start heading in the right direction.) No amount of smart PR (or branding..) will make you seem nice when you”re really not. Modern-day customers are too smart and cynical. Next, communicate on the customer’s turf rather than where you can make a big splash. Go where customers and citizens themselves are, listen to their concerns and respond to them. Meaning that you may need to spend more time looking at iPhone apps, Facebook, Twitter et al than getting into your paper of choice or getting on a billboard at the airport.

jigsaw_puzzleThere’s too much fragmentation going on in Brussels. First there’s internal fragmentation of communications within organisations. Marketing are doing this, product guys doing that, issue specialists saying X, PR saying Y. Surely companies need to be better integrated. In particular, marketing and PA especially need to be telling the same story far more. Why? Because selling to consumers and legislators is a lot more similar than it was a few years ago. Marketing back then would have said: we’re cheaper and/or we’re better. PA would have said: we’re providing jobs and innovation. Now? They’re still saying that, but they’re both also saying “our company is a model citizen because of X, Y, and Z” and in this respect, there needs to be a lot more collaboration.

Beyond that, there’s what I’d call external fragmentation on issues, which is totally different, but is still about fragmentation, so I’ll put it in the same post. Call me lazy. What do I mean? That when looking at an issue for a client or prospect, everyone is always struck by the mess: multiple players at national level and pan-European level, public and private entities, associations and pressure groups, old media and bloggers. Even within the Commission say, DGs can have totally different priorities on an issue. People are talking about pharma this week: it’s now largely under DG Enterprise, but DG Sanco want it because surely Pharma is about health, they say. Whatever the outcome, fact of the matter is that their approach would be quite different.

In communications terms, what this fragmentation of players results is in turn a fragmentation of content and story which frankly makes an issue appear far more complex than you as an organisation want it to be. It’s hard to thrive within complexity because your story is one of a thousand; legislators might not have the time, the nous nor the willingness to really understand it well.

So what should you do about it? You create your own story that is tangible and relatively easy to digest of course. In addition, and more importantly, you should be the one player that makes sense of the fragmented landscape, and you can do it online. How? You become your issue’s portal by aggregating and hyperlinking content from all stakeholders in one online HQ available on your site – whether they’re private, public, competitors, pressure groups, media or bloggers.

What’s the point?

  • You’re doing people a favour by making things easier. They’ll appreciate it.
  • Making things easier will also enable people to understand your take on an issue more clearly, as well as understand it within the context of other stakeholders.
  • The base assumption is that your argument is valid and that most of the content you bring in backs up your story. Assuming that’s the case, the outside content you bring in will give you the 3rd party credibility you crave.
  • Becoming the focal point for web content will enable you to own the discussion online, naturally making you a key stakeholder rather than just one of many. Search comes into it too. By becoming an online hub, others will link to you and you’ll get better a search ranking on your key issues.
  • You’ll showcase both sides of the argument (again, assuming your side is strong) and thus prove that you’re a fair and open player.
  • You’ll have taken step one of the the four-step approach to online engagement. I’ll be building on this in the coming weeks, so watch this space.

I wrote a post a few months ago stating, in short, that a dedicated social network may be worthwhile if your candidate, cause, company, profession, sector etc. is fairly unique and has a very dedicated band of followers looking to engage and/or be mobilised: “If you’re interested in something that can really get lots of people fired up (politics, saving wildlife, football) or, say, represent a very active political group or faction, then your own social network could work, if executed and promoted well.” I cited Barack Obama supporters and US firefighters as good examples of groups that wanted and made use of their own networks.

This all still rings true, but a few posts on Beth’s Blog have given me food for thought (see here and here.) To the list of people who would most likely make use of a good social network of their own, I’d add people who are dealing with a personal or family issue of a sensitive nature, say a medical condition or tragedy of sorts. They are likely to be very eager to communicate and engage with others who are facing similar experiences, as I can imagine that it must provide people with some semblance of comfort to interact with others out there who know exactly what they are going through. And to do so on a dedicated platform is more appropriate than, say, a Facebook Group, as it allows users to have the sense of privacy they’d likely demand when dealing with issues of a sensitive nature.

Under no circumstances am I suggesting that marketers should try tap into this market, although pharmaceutical companies could perhaps have a say – as long as they don’t blatantly plug their products. It’s probably an area best left to government agencies and especially non-profits (again, I’d refer to Beth’s blog as a good source for further material on this.)

Just re-read my last post, and wanted to expand on it slightly, because I think I make it appear as if the main value in “listening” online is to enable you to respond and engage with users who don’t like your company, product or sector and in this way help shape the online debate in the long-term.

First, it’s not always just the long-term that matters. Something goes terribly wrong, you’ve got a PR calamity on your hands, you’re in crisis communications mode and your online response needs to be very much short-term because the web is where bad news spreads the fastest. What do you do? These are, in short, the steps to take:

  1. You establish your position and what you’re going to say (this is valid for offline as well as online communications.) If you’ve done something where you’re patently in the wrong, admit to it, apologise, and take very tangible action to make amends. If the bad press is actually unrepresentative and you simply want to correct it, try to be nice about it i.e. don’t say that whoever is spreading the news is a so and so, but just correct the mistake.
  2. You set-up an online hub on your website where you publish your apology, rebuttal, immediate response or whatever. All updates should be made here first and all your other communication should point here.
  3. You get the best online monitoring set-up (using a specialised agency) and set up a dedicated team that will deal with follow-up.
  4. When you come across the story in reputable blogs or other sites, fora etc., you respond (being humble and staying on message..) and direct users to your hub. Result? If done well, you’ll slow down the spread of negative press while your response becomes part of the story, rather than just what went wrong.

Second, it’s not just about engaging with naysayers. You want to produce content that educates people beyond the negative press you’re getting, meaning that you don’t just communicate in response to criticism. You also need to proactively produce content that can contribute to the debate. And you want to engage with people who actually support your position too: tell them you appreciate their material and provide them with other content, and over time, build up relationships with them. This is probably the most important element of a long-term approach, as you’re helping to nurture a community of ambassadors who support your position.

UPDATE: just came across this post about online crisis communications (in French.)

I’ve been reading about how social media is transforming customer service for a while now (came across this article on Econsultancy about this very topic today) and am wondering to what extent the same approach is viable when it comes to regulatory issues and the like in Brussels.

Here’s the gist of how social media has been impacting customer service:

  1. Disgruntled customer complains about a company’s product on Twitter (or whatever.)
  2. Company has a social media monitoring set-up and picks it up.
  3. Company responds to customer in blog comment, directly, on Twitter etc. in calm and measured way, apologising and offering a solution of some sort.
  4. Customer is happy, says so, others who have followed conversation are impressed.

Is this a lot of work on just one customer? It might not have been in the past because people’s word of mouth networks were limited, but now, individuals can potentially reach millions of other online users, so listening and responding to single customers can have a massive positive knock-on effect. A company that is seen to be engaging and looking out for its customers becomes highly valued and the story can spread online. Plus if bad reviews are simply left to fester they too can spread untouched and even reach the top of search rankings so that people who search for a company or its products online might come across a blog entry slating it amongst the first few items. Bottom line is it’s good for the company.

What if the same approach were adopted by companies and other organisations who communicate on issues in Brussels or elsewhere? Online conversations are increasingly shaping public opinion and it’s the job of good communicators to tap into them and try to help to shape and shift the debate. What if, say, company X produces “nasty chemical Y” which people are writing about on Twitter or their blogs, expressing concern, and company X were to respond saying something along the lines of: “We accept and understand your concern. We’re trying to do our bit. The University of Z has issued a report which relates to your concern. Might be of interest? Here’s the link.”

It’s tricky, but I think it could be work as part of a long-term strategy aimed at tapping into the right conversations, nipping concerns at the bud, and slowly shifting the debate online.

However, I’d make sure the following guidelines were adopted and scrupulouslty adhered to:

  • Humility at all times!
  • Don’t use corporate gobbledygook but communicate like you would with a normal person.
  • Always keep in mind that what you say might spread, so make sure it’s appropriate to multiple audiences.
  • If you’re providing material, try to use third-party content whenever possible: far more credible than your pretty brochure.
  • Don’t interact with nutjobs. For some individuals and in particular single-issue pressure groups, their issue goes beyond concern for people and the environment etc. It’s an obsession and they’ll never ever be convinced by your arguments. If you try to communicate with them directly they might use it against you in some way. Do interact with people who are concerned but don’t have all the facts.
  • Be proactive as well as reactive: make it part of broader social media approach i.e. don’t just, say, respond on Twitter to people who are concerned about your issue, but also communicate independently. Otherwise it’ll just look like damage limitation rather than serious engagement.

nocommentmugCompanies that blog for marketing purposes fret about ROI: so we blog, how do we link to sales? Same with companies or other organisations who engage as part of their online advocacy efforts: OK it’s another medium, and we see how it’s different, but are we getting to legislators and other people who matter?

Sure, as a marketer you can connect your blog directly to sales channels (although I’d usually steer clear of this) while if you’re a campaigner, having a Google Analytics setup will allow tracking of domains such as the European Commission or Parliament, meaning you know exactly how much traffic you get from either. You won’t know if you’re reaching the most relevant people (you might just be preaching to the converted) but it’s a start nonetheless.

However, the measurements aren’t scientific by any stretch, so both groups often look at quantity and quality of comments as a measure of success, the logic being (rightly) that if people are reading but then also engaging in a constructive manner, the material you’re showcasing is having an effect.

However, to organisations who are producing top-tier content and getting loads of traffic but no comments, don’t worry about it too much: it’s presumably down to your target audience. Although we’re always hearing that unexpected demographics are going web-crazy, the fact remains that certain people might read blogs but will never comment, simply because they are still a little unsure of the medium. And if you work in truly traditional industries (say textiles, heavy machinery and chemicals) chances are that the people interested in your material are not the most avid web users, at least on average.

If I compare blogs I’ve worked on for clients, I can assure you that excellent blogs that are getting obscene amounts of traffic can get as little as one to five comments per month, despite plenty of efforts on our side to encourage commenting e.g. via questions or provocative remarks in posts. At the same time, blogs where the content is less interesting and the traffic less impressive are kick-starting week-long conversations via comments. Trust me, it’s not a reflection of the blog itself, but of your readership.

So what’s the best measure of success? I think it’s the “time spent on site” metric. Blogging is an element of content marketing i.e. the concept of guiding consumer action or shifting consumer perceptions via top-tier content which they buy into. Surely the ability to keep people on your site for a long time is the best testimony to this?

press-room1957-ike-strokeWhether you’re a pressure group strapped for funds or a multinational, you’ll want an excellent online press centre where journalists can easily find your latest news and other relevant material they might use for a story. But it should not just contain a long list of press releases: with everything the web has to offer in terms of showcasing content, it’d be a wasted opportunity. Ideally, your press centre would also do some of the following:

  • Allow journalists to subscribe to news updates at the click of a button
  • Contain material in multimedia formats i.e. especially video (which journalists increasingly appreciate and make use of)
  • Allow for commenting so journalists can get an idea of public reaction to your news
  • Enable journalists to find content very easily via keywords or tags rather than searching through a whole list in chronological order
  • And not to be forgotten, be SEO friendly so your content helps boost your site’s search engine ranking

Looking at that list, it sounds an awful lot like the features of a blog. And herein lies the answer to the “how do I build an excellent press room that makes the best use of all the tools available to me” conundrum. Just set up your press page like a blog: present all your newsworthy content, whether a press release or the 2-minute video interview with the CEO you filmed on your iPhone, as blog posts. Have categories and tags so users can easily find material. All your newsworthy material will be presented in one place rather than scattered around your newroom, which I suspect journalists will appreciate (although do be careful to not deem too much material as newsworthy); and you won’t feel restricted by the press release standards e.g. you can publish a very short post or a post just containing a video.

Result? More varied content + far better accessibility = happy jounalists.

I’m a little baffled by companies and other organisations that invest heavily in finding, hiring and keeping really talented people, but then won’t let them communicate to the outside world as representatives of their organisation. It’s a real loss, as happy and clever employees are potentially an organisation’s best ambassadors, especially at a time when: a)  people trust communication from “someone like me” a lot more than anything else, in particular the communications which these same organisations invest heavily in (brochures, website content, TV ads, press releases et al); and b) online tools are widely available for people to create content themselves easily, quickly and for free.

What’s the excuse? Usually something about complex approval processes, concerns over the type of content that might be produced, and a fear of backlash. In truth I think what it’s really about is resistance to change and getting your head around the fact that communication can be effective even if it’s not pristine and checked by 22 departments.

Things are changing though: companies like Sun Microsystems and IBM are showcasing their employees’ blogs with pride, and more are hopping on the bandwagon every day.

I’ve blogged about Twitter a few times, but have only really started using it a lot over the last few days (@steffenmoller). Although I’ve banged on about the value of Twitter as a learning tool – i.e. you hook up to the right people who share your interests and they provide you with insights and links that you wouldn’t have found yourself – I’m amazed by the extent to which this is the case.

I use Netvibes a lot, which allows me to view the latest posts and updates from a variety of blogs and news sites (100+). I update it regularly by adding new blogs and love it, but I have to say I’ve read far more interesting material over the last couple of days via links and hints from people I’m following. And I’m only following 28 people so far: what will it be like once I’ve found hundreds if not thousands of people that I want to follow? I think today is the day I really understand what all the fuss is about and think Twitter has raised the bar for how professionals of the future will be expected to interact and the knowledge they’ll be expected to possess.

A friend told me a story this week which gives some real insight into how sly lobbyists can be. A few years ago in California, Toyota and the US big 3 (GM, Ford and Chrysler) lobbied hard against stricter regulation governing emissions. This seemed odd at first. Toyota have spent years and billions in developing cars that produce fewer emissions – surely they’d want stricter emissions regulations as this would enable them to exercise their competitive edge?

Not quite. As ever, Toyota are a forward-thinking company (see my previous post):

  1. They understood that they have a competitive edge over the big 3 globally because they produce cars that are more environmentally friendly.
  2. They understood that the prospect of losing out on a huge market like California might finally move the big 3 to start investing more in hybrid technology and other less petrol-guzzling alternatives.
  3. Conclusion? They prefer having to compete with the big 3′s SUVs in California than have them invest in R&D which might in a few years make them viable competitors in the global hybrid car sector.

That’s clever. What I’d be curious to know is:  Toyota and the big 3 presumably sat down and co-ordinated their efforts at some point. Did the big 3 know they were being duped? And could the Toyota execs and lobbyists keep the smirks off their faces?

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