Out with the Old, in with the New: Will 2016 Be Memorable for Marketing?

There it goes. See you later, 2015. You will be memorable for…

10 minutes later.

What exactly did 2015 bring to the table? I wanted to write something witty that summarized all the happenings. I was even going to bring up that damn dress and the great Arizona llama chase, but there’s nothing that comes to mind of real note. Zero. Zilch. Zip.

Okay, that’s a bit harsh, but perhaps all the hype, buzzwords and promises just blurred into one vague unmemorable blob of a year. As while 2015 was a huge year for marketing and PR, one in which social matured and moved to the so perfectly named “trough of disillusionment,” mobile became table stakes, the walls between “digital” and “traditional” finally came tumbling down and content was crowned king, perhaps it all just got lost like a panda among snowmen.

Wish List

So what will make 2016 different? Blatantly borrowing from the Christmas cranks at the CMO Journal – who put together a great list for anyone in the media, marketing and advertising world – here’s my wish list for 2016:

  • We Drop the Gobbledygook: When working in marketing and tech, it’s hard not to put this at the top of the list. But it really doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t need to invent new words. We don’t need to sprinkle in adjectives like chocolate flakes on ice cream and we certainly don’t need to use words that our audiences do not understand. Instead, all we need to do is speak in plain English. Use short and understandable sentences. And imagine we are speaking to our friends. Simple? Yes. Likely to happen? Not any time soon.
  • We Don’t Lose the Art: Automation and data are great. They drive efficiencies, enable scale, give us insights that were once beyond our wildest dreams and are the shiny toys that everyone will be talking about over the next 12 months. But – and it’s a big BUT – we should heed the words of Ben Parker so that we don’t lose the very essence of what makes marketing and PR great: The Art.
  • We Avoid the Creep: Not that person who looks at you strangely, but the scope creep that is happening as the role of marketing expands. I know that sounds like I am in favor of every marketing discipline staying in neatly defined boxes, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, the point here is that to have the focus needed to show what we can really do, we need to ensure there is always a clear plan and goals in place.
  • We Realize Attention is Limited: By limited, I mean really, really limited. The humble goldfish even has us beaten. And it’s probably not going to get any better with more content, more devices and more channels competing for our attention. So whatever we do, whenever we do it, we need to try and make it attention grabbing. That means more visuals, less words and that I should probably stop writing now.
  • And Finally…this one goes out to the tech industry…We Change the Record: It’s time. It’s been time for a while now. Digital technologies, in all their shapes and flavors, are amazing; they have transformed the way we live and work and there’s much more to come. But another year of talking about the promise: about how cloud, mobile, social, big data, Internet of Things, etc. are going to be big and how they are going to change things? Let’s hope the predictions are right and this is the year they go mainstream and then perhaps we can even start dropping some of these terms. After all, we didn’t need to say client-server software, so why always cloud? Didn’t it jump the shark back in 2010?

There we have it. If everything comes through we will be jargon free, creative, focused, attention grabbing and able to show how our work delivers measurable outcomes. Plus we will never have to put the words cloud computing, big data and Internet of Things all into one sentence ever again. Sounds good, right?

#PRmyths – Goodbye “IT Decision Makers.” Hello Reality

Interchangeable IT decision makers. (Thinkstock)
Interchangeable IT decision makers. (Thinkstock)

What do the CIO, CFO and CMO have in common?

It sounds like an opening to a good joke, but the only really funny thing is that they are so often grouped together. Yes, they all have fancy jobs titles, lots of direct reports, huge business responsibilities and the proverbial “seat at the table,” but they also have vastly different challenges and priorities. But as conventional thinking goes, that should not stop you, the B2B tech PR pro, from grouping them together with anyone and everyone that could buy technology into a neat little group of “IT decision makers.”

From a communications standpoint, this is of course complete crazy talk as the differences are what matter. They are the things that allow us to tap into what these distinct audiences really care about and create content that will have impact. And importantly, they help us shift communications from broad-brush strokes to personalized conversations defined by the new era of social, mobile and other digital technologies.

So next time someone says the target audience is the “C-Suite”, “IT Decision Makers” or any other broad brush grouping, remember that those descriptors are about as useful as the term EMEA from audience segmentation and targeting standpoint. Instead, step back, think carefully about the specific person you want to reach – where they live, what they care about, how old they are, what they are passionate about, what makes them laugh, where they go to get information, etc. – and you’ll be surprised by the difference that will make.

Don’t Be Content with Your Marketing Content

It’s a cliché that I personally dread, but in 2014, content certainly made a strong claim to the marketing throne. It was as if everyone that worked in any flavor of marketing job suddenly thought, we need more content in our lives. We need to produce more. And we need to talk about it more.

One problem. A lot of that content was…well, how can I put this? Not exactly worth sharing. This thing is, with so much content being produced by so many people every minute of every day – the stats are kind of crazy – the bar for what constitutes “good content” keeps rising. Mark Schaefer’s Content Shock concept analyzed the situation perfectly in what must have been one of the most talked about pieces of content on content of the year. And that post was from January 6, 2014.

"You don't need more content, Oliver. You need different content." (Thinkstock)
“You don’t need more content, Oliver. You need different content.” (Thinkstock)

Despite the obvious diminishing margins of return, marketers still wanted more. It was the key to unlocking the value of social media. It would transform SEO. It would engage audiences in new and exciting ways. It was very cool stuff and like Oliver Twist, all you needed was more. Except that wasn’t really the case.

Marketing content had already been increasing like crazy for years. It was just 2014 when it seemed to become vogue. But instead of looking for simply more content, brands should have been looking at things a different way. After all, simply writing more newsletters, automating social media feeds, producing more infographics or launching more company blogs/magazines/YouTube channels/LinkedIn profiles/Facebook pages/carrier pigeon programs (well, that one might work) was never going to be more than a very short-term solution.

So as we enter another content-full year, I wanted to share some thoughts on how we are helping our clients differentiate their content storytelling:

Targeted: Funny how we often miss the most obvious things. And while I know the obligatory goal of any piece of content is to go “viral,” you haven’t got a hope in hell if you start by targeting the masses. All too often sweeping statements are used to describe target audiences – “IT decision makers” and “the C-Suite” are classics – when in reality, we need to really invest the time to understand exactly who we are hoping to talk with. What are they interested in at work? What are their interests outside of work? Where do they go to find information? Who do they trust? What makes them laugh? By answering those kinds of questions, you suddenly have a wealth of information to inform your storytelling.

Real: I was going to call this authentic, but that in itself felt a little fake. As if the aim of your content is to engage an audience in some way or another (in other words, the aim of 99.999% of all content marketing), then it has to be like a real conversation. That means the content won’t have marketing messages masquerading as stories. It could reference interesting data/insights your competitors have shared. It will be designed for the real world rather than your executive suite and it may not even refer to your company, product or service at all. Crazy? Maybe. Interesting, different and shareable? Definitely.

Visual: I might be dipping back into clichés, but simply put, a picture tells a thousand words. You can no longer afford to ignore video and other visual assets. In an increasingly mobile and social world where your story might have a solid five inches of real estate, they are now the price of admission. And don’t just think infographics. Think instead about the cool content you share with your friends – everything from gifs and Vine/Instagram videos to video-embedded content and video storytelling. A couple of great examples are GE’s cool #6secondscience and #GravityDay campaigns and the YouTube Rewind series.

Integrated: Yes, it’s cheaper. Yes, it’s simpler. Yes, it’s faster. But just producing standalone pieces of content is, in most cases, a waste of time. Content now needs to not only integrate visual and written assets, but also be a fully integrated part of your social, SEO, PR and advertising strategies. Don’t just think in terms of “one-offs” and instead take a leaf out of the HBO or Showtime book and think of entire series. That gives your audience something they can rely on, a reason to come back. And what’s more, developing content should be a core part of your team’s skills, because with so much integration required, outsourcing content to separate departments or teams is counter intuitive at best.

Part of It: Don’t be the person that walks into the bar and immediately tries to change the conversation. Listen, watch, care and ask. We have talked a lot about the power of the right question, but great content is about more than just that. It needs to be in the right voice, be relevant to popular culture, timely and something that people not only find helpful, but also enjoy. A tough ask, but we now have the listening and measurement tools that give us unprecedented insights into our audience’s likes and dislikes. By using that information correctly, content can be constantly fine-tuned.

That’s right. It’s a lot of work. But when we get it right, the payback is huge. And of course, telling a story that gets people talking is the really fun part about our jobs, and with all the changes that have taken place in PR, we now have more opportunity to do that than ever before. So rather than just focusing on “more” content in 2015, think bigger and look at how you can produce “different” content. It will lead to a very different year.

1,000,001 Opportunities: Every Story Is a Tech Story

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

If every company is a technology company and every business will be digital, does that mean that every story could be a “technology” story? Nilay Patel at The Verge certainly thinks so. And as Ricardo Bilton at Digiday explains, there are very interesting shifts taking place in the technology publishing world.

Stepping back, the bold claims about every company and business come from the experts over at Gartner. At their last two symposiums, the Gartner team have painstakingly detailed how technology should now be a key part of every company’s DNA. And it’s hard to argue against that as technology continues to transform the way we live.

If technology is now either part of, or soon to be part of, absolutely everything, then wrapping a neat bow around “technology stories” and placing them in an individual “technology section” could be an increasingly futile exercise for publishers. Sure, there still needs to be coverage of the actual technologies themselves (the speeds, the feeds and all the stuff geeks like us love), but more and more, the bigger and more impactful stories about what technology can actually do live within areas that you might not initially expect. Unless of course you already have Vanity Fair, Backchannel and Refinery29 on your list of targets for enterprise tech stories.

From a technology storytelling standpoint, this is kind of cool. It challenges us to rethink how we tell stories so that they can be understood by people who don’t understand, or don’t really want to understand, how technology actually works – and these simple, digestible stories often resonate the best with readers. With major technology publishers continuing to face tough times, taking a broader approach that focuses on the human and cultural aspects of technology opens up many more opportunities for hacks and flacks.

To mix things up further on the PR side, the way we actually tell said stories also needs new forms of content. A recent study of 500 top publishers by Frac.tl. showed the challenge of being heard, with writers at sites like nytimes.com, TheGuardian.com and CNN.com saying they receive about 26,000 emails a year from people trying to get press coverage. The study was also another PR blow for the press release, with only 7 percent of digital publishers asking for more. By contrast, the most requested items were articles (19 percent), infographics (12 percent) and mix-media pieces (13 percent). And forget stalking people down on the phone (only 5 percent want you to call) and those lengthy pitches – 45 percent of writers want them to be fewer than 100 words. Or to put it another way, you have fewer words than I used in the last four sentences to get your story across.

So opportunities abound, but they are not on a silver plate and they do require a rethink. Which is exactly what we are doing everyday at Blanc & Otus. It’s fun. It keeps things different. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

An Anchor or an Asset? The Value of Experience in PR Part 3

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

To wrap up our series on the value of experience in PR, we will look at if experience is actually helping us or holding us back.

On one side of the coin, experience is an incredibly valuable business asset that a certain Mr. Shakespeare referred to as a jewel. Even in the rapidly changing technology industry, experience has proven time and again to be the difference between the winners and losers. Yes, there are the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, but it’s no coincidence that as their companies grow and come under pressure to generate profits, they quickly fill their management teams with experienced executives.

The danger comes when people cling to experience and fail to acknowledge and embrace changes. People naturally fear change, but for anyone who works in PR, resisting it at either a strategic or tactical level is a fast way to obsolesce. Of course wisdom gained from past experience should be factored in, but it is only one factor to consider.

So how do we deliver innovative campaigns that give us the opportunity to appropriately apply experience and embrace change? One answer comes from the experts at the Innovator’s DNA. Their recent book includes a four-step process they call the Innovator’s Method. It encourages people to start by casting a wide net for insights, spend time exploring the problems and to evaluate the potential solutions before nailing down the strategy. It may sound simple enough, but when pushed for time (which of course no one ever is in this industry), we all know it can be tempting to simply apply past experiences and jump straight into developing the strategy and tactics.

Is experience an anchor or an asset for PR pros then? The answer is it can be either. If we simply rely on recalling and repeating the strategies and tactics of 5 or 10 years ago, we leave so many opportunities on the table. If we use the number of years experience we have to justify decisions and viewpoints, we risk missing out on fresh ideas and insights. And if we stick rigidly to former ways and don’t embrace new channels and forms of content, we have little hope of reaching and engaging audiences in a meaningful way.

It’s an exciting time. The rules are being rewritten. And PR has a huge opportunity. If we can use our experience wisely and embrace the changes, we can reach and engage audiences in new ways. So next time the temptation comes up to use past experiences as the primary guide for strategies or tactics, think first about what has changed and don’t focus on the problems that creates…but the opportunities it presents.

How Valuable is the History Lesson? The Value of Experience in PR Part 2

Credit: Andrew Horne
Credit: Andrew Horne

I used to. We did. When we. These are just three of the warning signs that come up when someone is about to explain a campaign or tactic that they did in the past. They are typically followed by details of what worked and guidance on how that could be applied to the current situation.

It would be naïve and arrogant just to dismiss the insights gained, but if the history lesson is more than 5 years old, the chances are it will be past its sell-by date. The technological changes in marketing (and in PR for that matter) have just been so steep. In fact, some experts argue that marketing has changed more in the last 5 years than the last 500.

In the last post, I looked at how these changes have impacted large strategic PR projects like messaging and positioning, but the ripple effect goes much further. As while PR pros could once rely on TV, newspapers, magazines, and maybe some radio to reach their audiences, the reality today is very different.

To simplify the explosion in channels, many marketing and PR organizations added new teams (and some ridiculous new titles) that focus on specific areas. Lots of PR agencies initially did the same, only to find that breaking out social was akin to separating bread and butter. So if this was the wrong approach, what does the ideal structure now look like?

The Harvard Business Review suggests that’s the wrong question to ask. Instead, it recommends that marketing leaders ask themselves “What values and goals guide our brand strategy, what capabilities drive marketing excellence, and what structures and ways of working will support them?” I couldn’t agree more and believe the same is true for PR and communications.

What does this mean for how we reach our audiences? It means that looking at individual channels is a blinkered approach. Instead, we need to think holistically and embrace brand journalism. As Larry Light, former global CMO of McDonald’s and the former chief brands officer at InterContinental Hotels Group, said: brand journalism is now a modern marketing imperative and involves creating “a continuing flow of valuable, relevant, integrated and engaging content — advertising, articles, blog posts, social media, live events, videos and social media.” In other words, it’s a blueprint for modern PR.

That’s not to say that we throw everything out. The relationship building skills that have always been central to reaching and engaging audiences are more valuable today than ever before. We just need to move beyond the idea of a simple Rolodex and instead look at how those skills can be complemented by the wealth of data and technology that we now have available.

Having now looked at the relevance of experience to both strategic and tactical PR programs, the next post will go back to the question of whether experience in PR is an asset or anchor.

Should Seasoning Be Saved for Steaks? The Value of Experience in PR (Part 1)

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

It’s easy to fall back on the number of years’ experience we have. We all do it. It’s often a badge of honor on LinkedIn profiles, many agencies boast the collective experience of their management teams and it’s clear from a quick look through our website that we are proud to be one of the longest established tech PR agencies in the world.

But how important is it? How relevant is experience gained in the eighties, nineties and even noughties to the way we engage audiences today? And can experience be more of an anchor than an asset?

The answer of course depends on how that experience is applied. As the Harvard Business Review recently pointed out, the way that marketers engage customers has changed beyond recognition in the past decade. And PR has been at the forefront of that change. The changes across traditional, social and digital media have been well documented (and they are nothing compared to what will happen next with mobile), but knowing the changes and understanding the implications can often be two very different things.

When trying to navigate these changes, there can be the temptation to lean on past experiences. But when, as the HBR explains, “strategies and tactics that were cutting edge just a few years ago are already becoming obsolete,” that can be a dangerous approach.

Take messaging and positioning. Almost every traditional PR program contains a messaging exercise, but to get people’s attention in today’s economy, such exercises are about as relevant as a mission statement pinned to the wall. Instead, over the last few years, people have begun to recognize the power of storytelling. But just like in Hollywood, all stories are not created equal. If storytelling fails to tap into the audience’s imagination and follows the same structure as traditional messaging projects, it simply becomes the same old marketing messages masquerading as a story.

And it’s not just the larger strategic initiatives where rigidly applying past experience can be less than helpful. As even if we do completely rethink exercises like messaging and positioning and adopt approaches such as viral storytelling, it’s not much use if we then use the same tactics from 10 years ago to tell said story.

To look at how those tactics have changed and see if experiences from the past can still be applied, the next post in this series will take on the changes in the way we reach our audiences.

Facebook Goes Myth Busting

Credit: NOAA Environmental Visualization Lab
Credit: NOAA Environmental Visualization Lab

BusinessWire, PR Newswire, PR Web and Facebook—one of these seems oddly out of place. But the social media network, which now has more members than India has people, has launched FB Newswire. In a marriage of old and new media, Facebook has partnered with News Corp-owned Storyful to try and make it easier for journalists to find, share and embed newsworthy content from Facebook. The idea being that Storyful will help Facebook verify news and thus debunk false stories, or as News Corp eloquently puts it, separate the “substantial from the superficial and the real from the fake.”

This is certainly a huge step in the right direction. Social media allows news to spread faster than ever before, but that speed often comes at the expense of fact-checking. And in many cases, it often seems that the bigger the story, the greater the desire people have to be first on their soapbox. The Boston Marathon tragedy and Super Storm Sandy are perfect examples of how social media can quickly spread misinformation.

The announcement comes at an interesting time. The recently published 2014 Pew Research State of the News Media survey provided a fascinating summary of the intersection between social media and news, which among other nuggets highlighted that about 30% of U.S. adults get some news from Facebook. That dwarfs the numbers from any other social media site – YouTube (10%), Twitter (8%), Google + (4%), LinkedIn (3%) – and means that if Facebook can in fact bust myths before they start, it could significantly reduce the spread of false news across the Internet.

And when looking at Facebook from a PR and marketing viewpoint, this partnership adds to an interesting couple of months. There was the small matter of a $16 billion acquisition and then a lot of talk about the end of the Free Lunch when Facebook tweaked its algorithm to reduce the reach of organic posts by brands. Then of course Facebook blew out Wall Street’s expectations, showing it is clearly adapting to the mobile world and using a combination of existing and new brands to engage an even broader audience. And now we have a move to make news more reliable and trustworthy on social networks.

There’s a lot to Like about where Facebook is going. We’ll be sure to watch out for what’s next at tomorrow’s f8 Developer Conference.

A Careful Balancing Act: Science Meets Art

Credit: James Jordan
Credit: James Jordan

Tech and PR. PR and tech. It has all been a very one-sided relationship. But as Tom Foremski recently pointed out, that relationship is in the process (or should be in the process) of changing.

We can’t really be surprised. Tech has gone beyond just automating routine tasks. It has advanced so far that the smart folks over in Oxford are predicting that there’s a 50:50 chance of a robot taking our jobs. And this isn’t some futuristic vision. We already have robots and various other automated processes changing the jobs of journalists, surgeons and venture capitalists. So why should PR be any different?

It shouldn’t. We should always be looking at ways to integrate new technologies into PR programs. It’s a natural fit for areas like research and measurement—we’d still be counting the tweets from Oracle OpenWorld 2013 if we were analyzing the conversation manually—but there are also opportunities to take advantage of tech in areas ranging from client collaboration and media relationship building to campaign reach and engagement.

Just don’t go too far. For example, removing some of the more tedious work sounds good on the face of it.  But when you are starting in tech PR and trying to learn about technologies you have never heard of and the different media landscapes, wading through hundreds of articles to produce coverage reports or building media list after media list might not be such a bad thing. It’s tough and seems repetitive at the time, but in the end it’s what helps us build the intimate knowledge of our clients and their industries. Or at least that’s the way we look at it.

The point here is that even in areas that seem perfect for tech, we should all think very carefully about how it’s integrated. That’s not to say we stick with the old way of doing things or ever use the argument of “that’s how it has always been.” Instead, it simply means that as we integrate tech further and further into PR programs, we keep an eye on the balance between art and science and stay focused not just on efficiency, but also on all the other areas that drive great results.

So smile in the face of disruption. Put ingenuity above innovation. And as you integrate new technologies into your programs, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.