Social Customer Service Isn’t Exactly New

Guys, people are using social media to get airlines (and other companies) to more quickly respond to their complaints and The New York Times is on it.

To be fair, there are some good points in the story about the state of how airlines are handling customer complaints, conversations and comments on social media. But the story struck me and a few others from my generation of marketing professionals as slightly odd, largely because it reminded us so strongly of stories we’ve been reading since roughly 2004, not just about airlines but other companies as well.

If you don’t know about “Dell Hell,” Jeff Jarvis’ long-running series of blog posts chronicling his issues first with a Dell machine and then the PR/marketing hornet’s nest he disturbed, you should look into it. That was all the way back in 2005, when many companies were still needing to be convinced blogs and the people who wrote them were worthy of any sort of attention. Social media as we now know it was still two or three years out, blog monitoring was done through RSS feeds or manual Google/Technorati searches and the idea of influencer marketing was still in its larval stage.

A number of other cases like Jarvis’ popped up over the next few years, with someone feeling the best thing to do with the bad experience they’d had with an airline, technology company or other corporate entity was to write a blog post or seven about it. These usually started with some form of statement of humility along the lines of “I don’t consider myself a big deal and don’t’ want to throw my weight around, but I have to tell you about…” Those were then followed with a blow-by-blow retelling of what had happened.

In 2005, while I was still with Bacon’s Information (now Cision USA), I gave presentation to a PRSA group in, I think, Little Rock, about how customer service and marketing was changing with the emergence of self-publishing on blogs. One slide featured an old-fashioned telephone receiver on the left and a megaphone on the right. My point was to say that the first was how issues used to be dealt with, in a one-to-one situation, while the second was how they were dealt with now, broadcast for the whole world to potentially see.

Social media platforms coming on the scene only made that more true, mainly because the barrier to entry and participation was lowered significantly and the pressure of maintaining social connections made participation all but mandatory. That was a big change from blogs, which were still relatively time-consuming to start and maintain. Now people had easy to use platforms on which to share their thoughts and opinions about the things they were buying, the experiences they had and more.

That we’re into our second decade of this being is barely mentioned by the NYT. American Airlines is said in the story to only have been running social-based customer service since 2012. And one marketing executive is quoted as saying the space has evolved significantly in the last 18 months. Both those may be accurate, but they’re also slightly off-putting.

2012 is at least half a dozen years too late for a company of any size to have begun seriously monitoring and responding to comments and criticisms made online. Teams may have scaled since then, but that’s still well behind the curve. I’ve been reading about online “war rooms” – an overly-dramatic label applied to the teams devoted to monitoring Technorati or Tweetdeck or other tool for response situations – since at least 2007 or 2008.

One area where the story is spot-on is that it takes a finely-tuned mix of instincts, insights and experience to be an effective person behind the scenes. You have to trust when the hair on the back of your neck stands up when reading a comment that may otherwise seem innocuous and start tracking it, knowing when to respond, in what matter, with what tone and with what message.

Importantly, you also have to know when not to respond. While some social media gurus and consultants have long preached the false gospel of 100% response rates, not everyone needs that. Some people are just blowing off steam and some are so fervent in their opinions no amount of reasonable corporate feedback is going to appease them. They just want to be angry and sometimes you need to let them, right up to the point where it becomes the flashpoint for a larger problem.

That kind of decision making ability takes some experience and requires trust on the part of everyone involved. The person with their fingers on the “Reply” button needs to be trusted by those higher up.

Similarly, this story about the history of podcasting comes off as quite tone deaf for those of us who lived through the period where podcasts were difficult to access as well as the years between that and the launch of “Serial,” when the format all of a sudden gained widespread media attention. Of particular note is this passage, which comes after all sorts of throat clearing:

In the first years of podcasts, a decade or so ago, technological limitations militated against their widespread adoption: they had to be laboriously transferred from a computer to an MP3 player or an iPod. Podcasts were made by geeks, for geeks. That changed in 2014, when Apple added a Podcast app to the iPhone, making subscribing almost effortless. Even better, it was usually free.

Now it’s true that podcasting has long been a niche format. A recent study showed the audience only just became somewhat representative of the U.S. population’s overall demographics. And it’s certainly receiving more attention from both media outlets and advertisers.

While it’s true Apple’s Podcast app is only a few years old, Apple began supporting podcasts through iTunes in 2005, meaning you no longer had to “side load” MP3 files to your player through a cumbersome technical process.

When Serial debuted a few years ago and everyone began taking podcasts seriously and treating it like a new phenomenon it was a bit shocking to those of us who had been listening for a decade already. We wondered where everyone had been.

Both of these stories share one basic problem, other than making me feel ridiculously old: They both come from the place of believing the world was formed only after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Neither social media customer service or podcast popularity are new. Neither was ripped from the thigh of Zeus when Barack Obama made his first inauguration speech.

Having some context and sense of history, all of which is easily researchable online, helps create a more complete picture of the story at hand, making it stronger, not weaker.

Making Characters Uncomfortable

Yes, I’m participating in NaNoWriMo. We’ll skip, though, over the fact that it’s the same book I was unsuccessful in completing during last year’s NaNoWriMo and have only been able to occasionally chip away at since.

OK, we won’t totally skip over that part because otherwise I won’t be able to share the thought I had that helped me get back started.

See, I’d been stuck on a story point. I’d gotten the characters up to a certain point where they needed to take action but didn’t know how to get them beyond that, to actually taking the necessary action. In fact I wasn’t even sure what that action was going to be.

One day as I was mulling the storytelling roadblock I’d encountered I started thinking “What would really fuck their lives up right now?”

Five minutes later I had it.

You think about how you live your life. Somewhere I heard or read that life is 20 percent doing what you want and 80 percent reacting to other people’s actions. I don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly feels true in storytelling.

What other people do creates a chaos that leads characters in new and interesting directions. It gives them a reason to keep moving and throws their – and your – best laid plans out the window. It means your characters can’t just move down their checklist but instead have to improvise and adjust, which is much more interesting to the reader than if everything progressed along a neat and orderly path.

That’s true in real life, too. We’re much more interested in talking to the people who were stopped on the way here because a family of geese were crossing the road and they were the *cutest* than to the person who had a boring and uneventful drive.

If you’re stuck on a story, figure out how you can drop your characters out of their comfort zone to shake things up. Have them kicked out of the room they’re in, or have someone arrested. Do something they wouldn’t expect or anticipate and which you don’t know how they’ll react to. It’s a lot of fun to see the characters you created squirm a bit.

Experience Informs Management

In a recent interview, actor Ethan Hawke encouraged aspiring directors and filmmakers to go beyond the details of cinematography and other aspects of the job and learn acting as well.

It’s a good point that deserves a bit of extrapolation.

There are all kinds of tips for how to be an effective manager and get the most out of your team. Many of them are good. Essential to achieving that goal, in my experience, is the kind of background Hawke alludes to.

The best managers, the kind of manager I’ve tried to be over the years, are those who have put in their time on the line. They know what they’re asking their team to do because they’ve done it themselves. That means requests and directions are less likely to be wholly unreasonable or unattainable. And it means that when things get tough they can jump in and lend a hand because they know how things work.

It’s not just about managing down, though. That experience they’ve had and the insights they’ve gained also inform how they manage up.

One of the most difficult aspects of being a manager placed somewhere in the middle of the organizational chart is dealing with the feedback and input from those above you. Some may have been promoted from within, but in many cases companies will bring in executives many years removed from such experience. When they offer their thoughts on what teams should be doing it is, to put the best possible spin on it, aspirational. At worst it’s irrational and unreasonable, ignorant of the realities of the job.

That’s not the best way to get results. It leads to wasted cycles as everyone has to explain once more what can or can’t be done and why. All of that winds up reflecting poorly on the worker, management or otherwise, who finds themself in an awkward situation. They may receive poor performance reviews when circumstances were largely out of their control.

Setting unrealistic expectations on workers can have long- and short-term effects, almost all of them negative, with subsequent impacts on productivity. In 2013 Gallup reported unhappy workers cost American companies between $450 and $550 million a year, at least some of which was likely because managers simply didn’t know how to lead even if they weren’t overly abusive and belittling.

“Leading by example” is a simple shorthand, but it goes beyond that. Managers should be intimately familiar with what they are asking their team members to do. And they should be acting as the first line of defense for their teams, shielding them from requests made by those higher up the food chain who don’t know that the system simply can’t produce the kind of report they’re looking for, or that the software won’t bend that way, or whatever the case may be.

The best part is that the experience someone gains travels with them, helping them as they themselves move up the ladder in that or another company. It benefits everyone because they know what they’re doing and what others are doing and has the potential to create an overall more reasonable, pleasant and productive work environment.

Hot But Inexperienced

The gist of this story is that labels are so interested in signing and promoting bands and artists that have begun to gain some popularity on SoundCloud or other streaming services they don’t take into account that those artists have almost no experience actually performing on stage. The labels want to tap into that buzz but find themselves trying to manage someone who can’t reliably be sent out on tour.

I’d be hard pressed to find a more perfect illustration of the current job market, at least as it’s seemed from my perspective.

One of the most common frustrations I’ve encountered is the gap between the kind of role someone is looking for, the experience and skill set they require and the salary they are willing to pay. Many job listings have read something like this:

Seeking content marketing professional to write, publish to and manage five brand profiles six days a week. Must have 10 years experience with client management, social media, direct advertising and budgeting as well as a background in journalism with extensive industry contacts. Salary: $25,000/year.

Sure. OK. Let me know how that works out for you.

I’m sure there are people out there who fit that bill, but you’ve excluded a good portion of the available applicants. That salary is going to exclude most anyone who’s more than a couple years out of school, without a family to support or mortgage to pay off. So you won’t get the experience, which comes with both “hard” skills – those directly related to the work required – and “soft” skills – the ability to adapt to a work environment, relate to colleagues and so on.

Even if salary and experience are in relative alignment, the kinds of skills listed often aren’t. They want someone who’s managed ongoing social content programs but also run large programmatic ad campaigns and run five major sponsorship-based live events.

It’s possible the problem is that job listings are still focused around roles or skills and not outcomes or goals.

Flip the script and imagine a job description written like this:

Seeking content marketing professional who can help us grow revenue via a publishing program.

That’s vastly different and opens the position up to any number of people with varying degrees of experience and who find themselves looking for work at different stages in their lives and careers. Specifically, it means two different people who have achieved that goal with two different sets of tactics and strategies are just as qualified, even if their experience isn’t exactly what the company has done before or thinks it should be doing. Someone can come in, offer their own perspective, and then be judged and reviewed according to that goal.

Instead those goals are usually offered after someone has already been hired, often as part of the annual review process. But by then the company has invested in onboarding and more. It’s a system that doesn’t adequately set expectations at the outset of the relationship, something that can be harmful for all parties.

By not focusing on looking for someone who can help you long-term, companies – like the record labels mentioned in the story above – are creating problems that have to be dealt with instead of seeking to find partners or employees who can solve those and other problems for them.

Media Awareness is Critical to Content Marketing

There’s been a lot of announcements recently about television advertising changing in various ways. I’m not necessarily talking about the kind of targeted, addressable ads that technology will enable, more the actual ad load and the way ad breaks on TV – and on streaming services – are being rethought.

The latest story on how Hulu is trying to reduce its dependence on traditional ad breaks and embrace more sponsorships is just the most recent example. It also got me thinking about how much of the media is formatted the way it is because it has to accommodate the desires and expectations of advertisers. Removing that or restructuring that will, then, necessitate a rethinking of how media is formatted, which means big changes for the creators and producers behind all of it.

It also means big changes will have to be made by those who create and produce material for content marketing programs.

We Live In An Ad World

The harsh reality is that all content, at least in the current media environment, needs to live in the spaces provided by advertisements. There are countless examples shared online where a news story – ostensibly the point of the page being published – that’s been crowded out and covered up by a plethora of ads. Some come down from the top, some expand from the side, some remain persistent in the corner of the page and autoplay video and audio, distracting you from the reading you came there to do.

Content marketing doesn’t suffer, at least in most cases, from the need to be ad-supported but it’s still required to be revenue generating in some manner.

Despite that, the material that’s published and posted often winds up being surrounded by ads when it’s sent out into the world. So content marketers still need to take into account what kind of ad environment what they create will go out and live in and how those ads impact how it’s received and interpreted by the audience.

Media Innovates, Marketing Follows

All due respect to those marketers who have done truly original things, but in most cases content marketing form factors have followed the innovations developed and implemented by media companies. Whether it’s listicles, video how-tos, explainer essays or something else, the formats tested and used by media companies will trickle over to what’s used by marketers in their content programs.

That’s why it’s so essential marketing professionals not only keep up to date on what’s happening in the media world in terms of what they’re playing around with and why. You can’t just say you’re hip to the latest influencer marketing or the latest audience targeting. You have to know what kind of formats are being used and what is or isn’t working and why.

New Ways to Make Money

As I mentioned, most content marketing programs aren’t specifically ad dependent like media companies are, but that doesn’t mean they’re not expected to bring in some money. In fact, revenue generation may be the specific goal of the content program.

There have been endless discussions about how media companies are or aren’t making money, discussions that have shifted dramatically over time. It’s been ad revenue, it’s been paywalls, it’s been sponsored content, it’s been conferences and events, it’s been a half dozen other things.

Not only are there direct implications for how content marketing programs are managed – and how revenue generation should be evolving – but there are indirect implications in how the press could and will react to what’s published. If no one is linking out anymore, it’s less likely they’ll link to your stuff. If everyone is looking for sponsored content, figure out how to provide it.

As the media world evolves it will be increasingly important for content marketing professionals to exercise their creativity and stay informed on what’s happening and what the conversations are. Unfortunately, in my experience, that’s something not many people stay up on. They’re too busy discussing the latest tweaks to social media, letting more substantive media pass them by because it’s not flashy enough.

Let Employees Direct Their Own Continued Education

There’s some decent thinking here in a post about the kinds of ways companies can focus their thinking around employee training. It’s a good conversation to have given that such training is one of the many ways companies have failed to adequately invest in the productivity of their workers.

The fatal flaw in the guidance given in that post is that it assumes the best solutions are going to come from the top down, despite a good amount of evidence those programs don’t work, either because they fail to address actual issues or people drop out. In fact, it seems many of the problems currently facing the workforce stem from the fact that for the last 20 years companies have failed to invest in the kind of training and education of their employees.

A recent story on the MIT Technology Review says managers are going to have to start spending some time training their employees in order to retain a set of skilled workers, particularly when it comes to making sure they know how to work with artificial intelligence and automation. But it also points out that many training programs are available only to a limited number of employees who qualify or who have the kind of time necessary.

What might be more useful is simply encouraging employees to seek out their own continued education and certification programs. Instead of trying to plug a whole company’s worth of square pegs into the same mandated round hole, let everyone do what they feel is best for them and their careers.

If they want to take a class at the local community college, let them and adjust their work schedule to accommodate that. If they want to do something online through Khan Academy or HubSpot or SkillShare or LinkedIn, let them and make it clear they can do so during the work day without penalty.

A number of recent studies show people, particularly the younger set, are taking jobs not so much because of the work but because of the experiences they might have and the skills they may pick up, all of which help them be more productive in this and future positions. They leave jobs when it’s clear their ability to learn more or apply what they’ve learned has stagnated.

Instead of trying to create new corporate program that only a small percentage of workers – usually those who already enjoy some form of cultural advantage like wealth – will qualify for or be able to participate in, simply open the doors to whatever option the employee would like to use and can make a decent case for.

The company can still vet the options and make sure they are applicable, but the onus is off to create a one-size-fits-none solution. And because the employer hasn’t invested significant dollars of them own in a curriculum, infrastructure and so on you bypass the “if we train them and they leave we’ve wasted our money” argument frequently used to justify the lack of educational and training programs.

“Hey, Saw You Wrote About…”

OK, so let’s talk about this Tweet.

I understand where the PR practitioners who are sending the emails described in that excerpt are coming from. They are doing what their clients or employers want them to do, which is be included in conversations. The stakes are even higher given many are playing the content marketing game, with lots of pages and blog posts going up that gain value if a highly-read and respected site or publication links to them.

It’s a variation on the kinds of emails or phone calls PR people used to send and make. First it was to see if there was a reason the company they represent wasn’t included in a story about their industry. Then it was to see if the online story could be updated to include a mention. Now they want a link as well.

What I’ve found in my experience is that such conversations not only often are unwelcome by the journalist but they arrive far too late to have any measurable benefit. Not only that, but usually don’t do much good because the journalist has moved on to other stories and doesn’t have the time or interest to go back and revise their previous work unless it contains factual inaccuracies.

Instead there are three kinds of conversations to have or messages to send that come off as far less pushy and demanding and much more helpful and informative.

#1 Here’s a Resource For You

When you have a corporate blog or other informational site that *could* be of use to the media, let them know about it and tell them how they can stay current on what’s published there. You want to create long-term readers, something journalists consume regularly so they can see what kind of perspectives you’re offering on current news and keep that in mind when or if they’re writing something about it.

#2 Interesting, Have You Considered… ?

Instead of asking for corrections or changes to an existing piece, offer the writer or editor something different to consider the next time they are about to tackle similar subject matter. This isn’t about chastising them for something they may have overlooked, it’s about giving them something new to keep in mind the next time the wheel lands on that particular topic or theme. Or even more broadly, it’s about creating awareness so even if it’s off-topic the journalist might proactively pick up the phone for a quote or comment.

#3 Cool Stuff

There’s actually no ask or request attached to this one. It’s just a “I liked your story and got a lot out of it” message that’s just meant to say you appreciate the work the journalist has done. I’m not saying there aren’t ulterior motives related to establishing a relationship behind doing so, just that every communications between a PR person and a journalist doesn’t need to be directly transactional.

The best part of all these – and other tactics – are that they create dialogue. They open up the lines of communication through which benefits in the form of coverage, links and more will flow. All of which come with no overt or awkward requests, just the offer of help in the future.

Selling Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’

The marketing of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the subject of my latest recap at The Hollywood Reporter. s

The wizarding world established in print by J.K. Rowling and then on film by Warner Bros. keeps expanding with this week’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. The movie, the second in the Fantastic Beasts series that is set decades before Harry Potter enrolled at Hogwarts, picks up with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) being enlisted by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to find the recently escaped magical criminal Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp).

via ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ Rallies Harry Potter Fans for Next Chapter | Hollywood Reporter

Work Dictates Usage

When you think about it, the advice shared here to limit social media usage to a half-hour each day in order to try and avoid depression and loneliness makes sense. My own experience has shown that the more I obsess about Twitter the worse I feel.

That advice is similar to to what’s offered for many hazards. Don’t stay outside too long in bitter cold or extreme heat, don’t spend too much time engaged in dangerous activities and so on.

But those who work in those industries or in those conditions don’t have much of a choice, do they.

It’s a reminder that good advice is only applicable to those who have who enjoy some agency and power. If you work at a fast food restaurant, advice to not spend too much time on your feet isn’t really going to do you much good because that’s the job. If you work construction you’re going to be spending time outdoors, regardless of weather and other conditions.

Same for social media. An entire generation of the “knowledge economy” is doing some kind of content and social media marketing, professionally posting to Facebook, Snapchat and other networks while also monitoring conversations there, analyzing trends and staying constantly online lest they miss the hot new meme that can be coopted into a marketing program.

There will be social repercussions from that. There’s already evidence the stresses inherent in the new economy are causing psychological and health issues, including a rising suicide rate, and teen depression has been linked to smartphone use, including texting and social media. There’s a real chance that will only get worse if people who found social media was harmful for their self image as a teenager enter a workforce and get jobs where “on social media” is something they’re expected to be 15 hours a day.

Managers and other executives will have to be trained on how to deal with this, or productivity is going to take a major hit. Unfortunately it remains to be seen whether or not employees will have any power in this conversation. Right now someone whose job requires them to be on their feet for eight hours at a time might be fired if they can no longer handle that physical stress instead of reassigned to a job that’s less demanding. There’s no real reason why it won’t be the same for those suffering stress from constant social media exposure.

Decreased workplace protections mean they will have little recourse to contest such decisions while the increased power enjoyed by companies that survive waves of mergers and acquisitions mean they can discount anyone who appears to be “not the right fit” for an open position.

Staying off social media can be good for you. But there are many people for whom that’s not an option because they don’t have much actual control over their situation and we’re going to see how that impacts society as a whole in the very near future.

What’s Stock Photo Guy Been Up To Recently – November 2018

It’s been a while since we checked in with our old friend, so let’s take a look at what he’s been up to and what problems or issues he’s been considering.

Forget the Word Count

He’s definitely not forgetting the word count here. In fact I’m willing to bet he’s extremely focused on it at the moment, wondering how he’s going to make the 17 pages of notes and comments his boss just sent him into the two-page overview his boss asked it be condensed down to. And he’s not liking how things are going so far.

Major Factors That Hinders a New Freelance Writer?

Well first of all he’s thinking that one big hindrance is the lack of a good editor since you don’t need the “s” at the end of “hinders” in the headline. Also on his mind is that freelancers are often hindered by the systemic issues they face in paying sometimes contradictory taxes to state and federal bodies. Oh, and he needs to go to the bathroom but is really tired of packing up his laptop every time he has to do so because this cafe is a bit crazy sometimes.

Stop Acting Like This Is Easy

“Who thought this was easy? This effing hurts, Karen!”