XTC 7/1 – Kicking the Tires: The Importance of Truth-Telling in Storytelling

Alan Levine, Wikimedia Commons
Alan Levine, Wikimedia Commons

There’s an old English expression—if there’s a wasp in the room, I want to know where it is. And as somebody who was originally trained as a criminal prosecutor, I can attest to how important it is to know the location, size and severity of the skeletons in the closet. Normally, such issues come out during a standard crisis communications audit, and there are a number of sophisticated digital tools that can help companies anticipate a crisis and simulate what it would be like to be in one.

But all too often, we relegate crisis audits to large-scale corporate programs and forget to kick the tires on creative exercises like narrative development and thought leadership. We ask about what would sound compelling without probing deeply enough on what compelling evidence exists to back up our claims. One negative result is when an issue comes up out of left field that we’re not prepared for—a product doesn’t work the way it should, a company doesn’t behave the way it should, or an executive says something they shouldn’t have. And an even more disturbing result is when some fundamental problem emerges that undermines the rest of the communications program—some latent reputational issue that casts a shadow of doubt over everything else the company says and does.

That’s why sometimes the PR lead has to take off their promotional hat and put on their investigator’s cap. In the long run, PR success is best served by posing the most probing, difficult questions to get at the truth behind a company and its claims. Questions like:

  • What’s the one question you really hope you never get asked in an interview? And what’s the most honest answer to that question?
  • How is our customer base most likely to interpret our brand promise? And where are we most at risk for falling short of that promise?
  • Are we engaged in any activities that our customers don’t know about that would impact their decision to buy from us? And how would those actions most likely be perceived if they were to come to light?
  • What unspoken, implicit promises do our customers expect us to keep? And how are we doing with keeping those unspoken promises?
  • What’s the most likely crisis you can see emerging? And how prepared are we to deal with that crisis?

Unless we ask these questions, the communications campaigns we’re working on, no matter how creative or clever, can quickly be undone in a matter of seconds. Only by asking these questions can we as PR professionals equip our clients with the tools they need to respond to difficult issues with integrity and impact. And without the answers to these questions at hand, we run the risk that our communications efforts are reduced to spin, not persuasive argumentation of the truth.

XTC (Examining The Change) is a weekly column where B&O CEO Josh Reynolds explores the intersection of storytelling, leadership and technology. 

XTC 6/24 – Must Be Season of the Pitch: Avoiding Hype and Hyperbole during Hype Cycle Summer

Credit: Stallio / Flickr
Credit: Stallio / Flickr

It’s hype season again. First, Mary Meeker comes out with her annual “the world is growing at a mind-blowing pace” Internet trends report. Next, pundit after pundit uses those stats in the latest pitch decks to media, analysts and VCs to prove up their own market leadership and thought leadership positions. And each of those decks includes varying shades of hyperbole to break through the white noise.

And then, between June and August, Gartner publishes a series of Hype Cycles that puts it all into context. With a separate hype cycle for more than 100 technology markets, these reports serve as a massively helpful reality check against big promises from tech vendors. It’s worth tracking. (My personal favorite is the Emerging Technology Hype Cycle, which is a terrific time-saver for staying on top of the latest technologies and the pros and cons associated with each one. The 2014 one is due out in August.)

But as is true of so much research, the trick is knowing how to interpret the data. Most hype cycles are used by tech purchasers or investors to help assess the risks and pitfalls inherent in any given tech segment. But there is a more creative application for tech marketers—to use the hype cycle as fodder for no-nonsense thought leadership campaigns. Here’s how to do it at each stage of the cycle:

  • Technology Trigger. Something is invented and debuted among a small set of geeks and investors. Expectations start low, and the real question is how this technology will disrupt existing technologies as it matures. This is the “next big thing” phase. Here the communications strategy is to illustrate the most likely ways genuine disruption will show up. How will it impact existing technologies and business models?
  • Peak of Inflated Expectations. Something is promoted to the market, usually over-hyped, and positioned as a game-changer. Expectations exceed reality, and the definition of this new thing and what it’s supposed to be is stretched in multiple different directions by different vendors. Here the communications strategy is to challenge myths, guide the public as to how to protect themselves from later disappointments, and establish yourself as a voice of reason.
  • Trough of Disillusionment. Something is deployed in the market by early adopters and a few fast followers, and implementation challenges begin to arise. Expectations are not met, and people begin to complain about the technology. Vendors and solutions are swapped out, and the people who chose these technologies are questioned internally. Here the communications strategy is to leverage your “voice of reason” position to explain how to protect your existing investment in this new technology and make it work in the real world.
  • Slope of Enlightenment. People either adjust their approach or their expectations or both, and this new technology becomes more intelligently deployed. Expectations begin to normalize against the reality of this technology.  Here the communications strategy is to celebrate the customers who were the first to figure out the proper use and expectations for this technology.
  • Plateau of Productivity. Here the technology reaches mass adoption and begins to become commoditized and/or ubiquitously included in other platforms. Expectations are completely in line with performance, and excitement levels are minimal. Not much is newsworthy in this phase except for price pressure and all that commoditization brings. The communications strategy here is to look back at technologies in the Technology Trigger phase and see what new innovations will come along to refresh and disrupt the existing technological norm.

So as we enter Hype Cycle season, keep an eye on Gartner’s point of view on hyperbole and overpromising in your tech sector, and take this opportunity to rise above!

XTC 6/16: Viva le Differentiation! Giving Superlatives a Rest in the Quest to Differentiate

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

Biggest, best, fastest, first, only … when it comes to making brands stand out, nowhere else in the world at any point in history have superlatives ever been more overused than in the technology sector.

Okay, maybe that’s over-stating it, but that’s my point—in an attempt to get our message out over all the white noise, we stretch superlatives past the point of meaning anything. Whether you’re in a maturing space with massive consolidation and commoditization of technologies, or whether you’re in a hot new space flooded with startups, there are so many different companies clamoring for attention that virtually every PR practitioner has their own formula for smart messaging. But what some companies lack in rhetorical finesse they try to compensate for with brute force of verbiage. It’s the “Spinal Tap” approach to differentiation, where the volume on your value proposition “goes to eleven!”

Even worse, most of the superlatives we fall back on in tech PR are utterly subjective. Words like “best” only mean something in context—best for whom, and under what conditions? Words like “first” only mean something today if you can prove up the competitive barriers to entry. And words like “only” can work against you as easily as they work for you. If you’re the “only” vendor to take a certain technology approach or play in a certain category, it could be a warning sign that you’re on the path to obsolescence, not innovation.

With that in mind, here are alternatives to articulate differentiation:

Differentiate by customer. Not all solutions were meant for all customers. Sit down with your business development, product marketing and analyst relations teams and challenge yourselves to answer the following question: who should not buy our stuff? Which part of the market would be best served going to a competitor, and under what conditions? Differentiate yourselves based on a surgically selective sweet spot in the market—preferably one with money and purchasing power.

Differentiate by problem. A corollary of differentiating by customer is differentiating by problem. What is unique about how you define the customer challenge? In the David Maister “Trusted Advisor” model, the way to make the leap from being just another vendor to being a strategic partner is to help your customer see their challenge in a new way. Help them redefine their problem in a way others don’t. This differentiation also helps you pull ahead of competitors in thought leadership.

Differentiate by revenue agenda. You can also differentiate yourself at a corporate level by demonstrating unique differences between your revenue agenda and that of your competitors. What legacy approach are they defending? How can you call out any discrepancies in how they make money and what’s in the best interest of customers? Are there any disconnects between the promises your competitors make to shareholders and customers? And where is your own business model best aligned with your customers’ needs? Differentiating by revenue agenda is a powerful technique, as it leaves no room for your competition to mimic you.

Differentiate with storytelling. Brand differentiation is an established science. A more emerging technique is to differentiate based on your ability to engage in viral storytelling. That is, outmaneuver your competition with a narrative around your company that is true, compelling, succinct, competitive and eminently shareable. The most important technique to embrace here is the art of the “viral question”—a provocative, open-ended question that genuinely solicits fresh thinking from your audience around how they ought to be defining their challenge and what market myths ought to be challenged.

What differentiation techniques do you find most compelling? Share with us @BlancandOtus.

XTC 6/3: Reversing the Bastardization of Leadership in Tech PR, Part 3

Credit: Luca Zanon
Credit: Luca Zanon

In our previous two installments about leadership, we’ve looked at market leadership and thought leadership. Today we turn our attention to another cliché: technology leadership. Generally speaking, people use the term “technology leader” to connote having either the first, best, or only kind of specific technology in any given segment. Sometimes the self-appointed superlatives are warranted, and sometimes they’re not.

It’s the impact of overusing this cliché that bears repeating. When we cease to use the term meaningfully, we actually hinder progress by confusing the public dialogue around innovation, ingenuity and entrepreneurialism. Real technology leaders derive their strength and influence from being in service of something greater than themselves: innovation and expanding the boundaries of human potential. It’s the human application of the technology—what it allows us to do as individuals, communities, organizations, industries, economies and as a species—that makes or breaks the story. In short, technology leadership is as much about picking the right problem to solve in addition to solving it well.

And not all technologies are designed with a specific problem in mind. All too often, tech companies find themselves with outstanding innovations in search of a market. When that happens, the phrase “technology leader” begins to pop up like mushrooms in marketing collateral.

Especially for smaller companies, challenger brands and companies in a new or emerging category, claiming to be the most innovative is a common technique. It attracts talent, boosts valuation ahead of an IPO or acquisition, and can even help convince marquis sales prospects to make a bet on an unproven company. But claims of technology leadership need to based on provable data points. A few useful ones include:

  • Intellectual property portfolio. How many patents and copyrights does the company hold? And who else in the industry is benefiting from them?
  • Investment in R&D. What industry challenges is the company tackling, and where is it investing money, time and resource to address them?
  • Ingredient plays. Where and how does this technology enable other technologies? How does it help customers increase ROI from technology bets they’ve already made?
  • Benefit to the ecosystem. Where and how does the company’s technology help adjacent players in its market add value? What win-win scenarios does it create? And why should the industry want to see this technology succeed?

Next week, we will look at a fourth dimension of the leadership discussion in tech PR—that of actual team and organizational leadership.

XTC 5/22: Reversing the Bastardization of Leadership in Tech PR, Part 2

Credit: Todd Quackenbush
Credit: Todd Quackenbush

This week, we continue to examine the impact of abusing the term “leader” by looking at the overuse of “thought leadership.” This will include some thoughts on how to avoid the perils of hyperbole around what is actually an extremely beneficial exercise in market education.

First, let’s start with why people engage in thought leadership in the first place. Tech companies often need to make the leap from being seen as a “vendor” or “provider” to being seen as a trusted advisor. One way to do this is to be the voice of reason around emerging technologies and help people distinguish hype from reality. In this regard, creative use of things like the Gartner Hype Cycle (something B&O has pioneered and a topic of discussion in our next XTC series on Hype and Hyperbole) can be extremely helpful. Another way to do this is to help people zero in on smart questions they can ask themselves as they go through the inevitable learning curve of putting new technology to good use.

Thought leadership backfires, however, when it’s reduced to jumping on the latest buzzword bandwagon and substituting a product pitch for meaningful discussion. This is where objective definitions of thought leadership can be helpful, and at B&O, we think of thought leadership this way:

Communications that motivate people to think about a current topic in a new way and
result in a measurable change in beliefs and behavior.

In other words, thought leadership is not a product pitch, though it may boost sales. It isn’t always tech-centric, though innovation and ingenuity are often components. It doesn’t jump on the latest cycle of hype, though it pokes holes in common myths. It isn’t always focused on personalities and executive images, though it can boost executive visibility. Most importantly, it leads with smart questions as much as smart assertions, as questions are more effective in shifting people’s perspectives.

So in service of bringing meaning back to the term “thought leadership”, we offer the following set of criteria to help save your own efforts from the buzzword graveyard:

  • Be relevant. Address a technology or topic that’s already top of mind, rather than trying to popularize a new term or category definition that’s blatantly self-serving and not immediately recognizable.
  • Be useful. Deepen people’s understanding of that technology or topic, not just your own specific offering.
  • Be provocative. Change the way people consider their challenges and opportunities by challenging unhelpful assumptions that inhibit the creative use of the technology. But don’t just poke holes in other people’s ideas or prop up your own. Create a new perspective that shifts people’s thinking.
  • Be inclusive. Rather than dominating the discussion as the lone voice, invite constructive dialogue from the industry. And the most effective way to do this is to pose open-ended “viral questions” that trigger dialogue.

Next week: technology leadership and what it means to be a tech leader, not just a tech peddler.

XTC—Examining the Change: Changing the Relationship with Risk

Credit: Cole Patrick
Credit: Cole Patrick

In our previous two posts we’ve explored the dynamic of ingenuity over innovation, and ways to activate customers as influencers. But one of the more prevalent trends in tech marketing and PR this year is the extent to which tech marketers are targeting specific vertical markets.

What’s interesting is that many of these verticals are traditionally risk-averse, such as health careautomotive, and manufacturing. It’s usually because they  find themselves caught between opposing mandates such as regulatory concerns, public safety, security and financial risk on the one hand, and the need to deal with massive disruptions from new business models and competitors on the other. And if these traditionally conservative industries don’t embrace the risks that technology represents, they’re in trouble.

Gartner calls this “Digital Business Advantage,” and in a recent report, they make some fairly startling predictions. By 2017 …

  • 20% of all market leaders will lose their dominant position to a company founded after the year 2000 because of a lack of digital business advantage
  • 25% of all companies will lose significant market share because of “digital business incompetence”
  • Corporate strategists will begin conducting daily competitive scans because of a loss of sustainable competitive advantage

In other words, embracing technology risk is no longer a luxury. Fast followers have to become fast evolvers, or else they risk extinction.

But what if these organizations could change their relationship with risk? What if they could apply that same calculating conservatism they usually apply to examining technology ROI and instead calculate a different cost—the cost of doing nothingCertainly, it’s often difficult to predict the hard ROI from deploying a relatively new and unproven technology. But it’s much easier to predict the impact of not changing course when new competitors are emerging and already starting to eat away at your market position.

And what if companies began to count their organizational learning curve as a corporate asset, as well? That’s the other untold story in technology today—the fact that in many cases, we are still learning the appropriate use of these new technologies. But it takes time to figure out the best possible uses for a new technology, and all too often companies and industries assume that the first few uses are the only uses. And this leads to a gross undervaluing of ROI. But in a world where change is the only constant, it’s the fastest learning curve that wins. Where’s the ROI equation for that?

That’s why today many progressive companies are re-examining their relationship with risk. CIOs and CTOs are beginning to accept that the downside of innovation is nothing in comparison to the downside of not evolving. And progressive tech marketers are beginning to engage customers in co-creating value propositions. Because a great technology in the hands of an ingenious customer probably has applications far beyond what the vendor ever had in mind.

Next week, we’ll look at engineering for expectations, and embracing human assumptions as a core design principle for your tech PR campaign.