The New Norm: The Convergence of Strategy, Execution and Measurement

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

We all know that tech communications is evolving rapidly. But amidst the constantly changing technology, workflow and communication challenges we all face on a daily basis, the really interesting thing is that a new norm is slowly forming. Strategy, execution and measurement are beginning to converge. Old myths are being challenged. And a new playbook is forming around creative destruction, co-creation and authentic omni-channel storytelling.

First, this convergence of strategy, execution and measurement has enormous implications for what the new norm looks like in technology marketing. Strategy and execution are merging as the stakes are raised for strategies to pay off quickly.

And they are not the only things. Measurement and strategy are converging, as well. We used to conduct marketing and communications measurement after the fact and ask ourselves, how did we do? What might we do differently next time? Realistically, we’d do this once a month, in some cases only once a quarter, just because we were so busy executing we had little time to measure. But now the data that’s available to us on the impact of our communications is everywhere, it’s instantaneous, and it’s imperative that we learn from it.

Meanwhile, execution and measurement are merging. Traditionally, measurement would rarely actually impact how we were executing, because we waited for the final results to show up before we bothered to look at the data. As we learn to filter out the signal from the noise and become more adept at reading data signals intelligently, we can stop doing marketing and communications in the rear-view mirror and start looking at our instrumentation as we’re driving forward, not after we’ve finished the trip. Then we can adjust both our strategy and our tactics in real time to change the outcomes we’re measuring.

And all this means that as a marketing and communications function, we have to converge, as well, and collaborate more closely and fearlessly than ever before. Drop the silos. Don’t let org charts and reporting structures get in the way. Strategists and planners, creative designers and developers, project managers, relationship managers, data analysts—the entire team needs to gather around the table and recognize that it’s all connected now, and sharing information and insights faster internally is more important than ever. All too often, it’s our own internal political and organizational friction that limits our success.

And when we do gather as a team and start thinking collectively, it becomes that much easier to see through some of the more unhelpful myths that are getting on our way:

  • Communication innovation isn’t always about inventing new words.
    Sometimes, technology companies get caught up in category creation and creating new must-haves and catch phrases that nobody has ever used before. This is actually a time-consuming and costly approach. With all the white noise that already plagues most technology categories, the wiser approach is to engage in a little creative destruction, rhetorically speaking. Challenge existing myths and hype, be the voice of reason in a crowded discussion, and create some space for new ways of thinking.
  • Thought leadership isn’t a dictatorship.
    The next myth is that thought leadership is all about educating an audience and telling them something. In fact, thought leadership is about curating a discussion and asking your audience to see a current problem or challenge from a new perspective. Once you’ve cleared your rhetorical space of the b.s. and hype that’s clouding people’s understanding, you can co-create a point of view with your audience through the use of viral questions and interactive content strategies across multiple channels.
  • It’s not all about gorgeous content and keywords.
    Nobody will deny that brilliantly designed content and engaging form factors such as videos and apps work wonders to capture people’s attention and imagination. And clearly the right SEO strategy will boost visibility. But unless those eye-popping experiences and keywords lead to a measurable shift in sales, stock price, talent recruitment or some other KPI that the CEO cares about, it’s hard to justify even the most conservative of invoices on creative content. What’s really needed is for content creators to converge their thinking with the business strategists and data analysts around the table and come up with the omni-channel narratives and experiences that also lead to cash.

This the new norm that we see, and it’s just part of what we’ll be discussing in our upcoming series on The New Norm. There are many other PR myths to explore, and new ways for technology communicators to work together. We’ll be taking a look at them more closely in our upcoming series, and we invite you to share your ideas with us, as well.

XTC 7/24 – Viral Storytelling: “In a World” of Changing Storytelling …

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

In our second installment on Viral Storytelling, we look at how the world of storytelling has changed over the past few years, and the challenges that poses for storytellers. We also take the opportunity to drink our own champagne and invoke the first two chapters of the five-chapter mythic model of storytelling: The World Has Changed, and Change Creates Challenge. (See what we’re doing here? Nice, right?)

All storytelling has always begun with a phrase like “Once upon a time”, or if you’re a movie trailer voiceover buff, the phrase “In a world …” The best stories begin with a memorable opening, something that makes them stand out, but all of them accomplish the same thing—setting the scene. And in the world of tech PR, the scene consists of a number of different elements—technology, human behavior, business dynamics, regulation, and environmental factors. Or as I like to put it, platforms, people, profit, policy and planet.

The trick is, not everybody sees the world the same way, and therefore not everybody sees change the same way. So when we’re writing the first chapter of our viral story, The World Has Changed, we have to pick a lens and be specific about it. Better yet, we can look at a perfect storm of change and examine how the winds of change are combining to create all sorts of challenges.

And that’s how storytelling has morphed over the past few years. With the rise of social media we now have several communication tools that let us surgically segment our audiences not just by “demographic” but also by passions and perspectives. And that allows us to write multiple beginnings to our story and take advantage of more than just one hook. In short, we can be relevant for more than one reason, depending on which lens of change we want to use.

A perfect example is the electric vehicle. When the EV discussion was just getting hot again a few years ago, it took off in a global discussion because it was at the nexus of multiple perspectives—environment, economics, politics, and the transformation of the transportation industry. No matter what you cared about, you could care about EVs and EV infrastructure. That’s the play many tech companies are looking for today.

But then once you become topical in Chapter One: The World Has Changed, you now have to become emotionally relevant in Chapter Two: Change Creates Challenge. And again, in the old model of storytelling, you had to guess why people would really get involved in your story. Focus groups were conducted at great expense to help us guess what would resonate most with people who looked, talked and spent like the people we had on the other side of the one-way focus group mirror. Ultimately, we were still guessing and generalizing.

But now, with the rise of multi-channel storytelling, we don’t have to guess. We can describe the challenge as it feels to different personas, different kinds of peoples and different perspectives. And perspective is extremely powerful as a storytelling tool. How does the change we’re describing feel to a young, digital native consumer? To an older, more traditional business owner? To a progressive politician? To a mom-preneur? We can interpret and personalize the challenges from any number of perspectives and again give our viral narrative more than one way to reach the hearts and minds of our audience.

But then, of course, there’s a twist in the plot … how do we reunite all these different strings of story and weave them back into one coherent narrative? How do we prevent our story from careening off course into a chasm of customization?

That, dear reader, is the topic for part III in our series—“A Shift in Thinking”.

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 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.