Marketing Is Partly Fixing Non-Existent Problems

One of the hallmarks of the first era of PR blogging was that everyone was a problem fixer. Any time a company made the slightest misstep and experienced any kind of blowback from its behavior there were a dozen experts right there to identify what went wrong and share their solutions to the reading public, solutions that coincidentally often matched the writer’s overall philosophy or the consulting services he was happy to offer.

That editorial approach has seeped into the media at large. Anytime there’s a rallying of public opinion around a perceived issue, there are sure to be editorials on well-regarded sites with suggestions on how the problem can be fixed and advice on how to avoid such obvious issues in the future.

It’s an approach I’ve tried my darndest to avoid over the years. I may take issue with something, but I try to steer clear of making it a central theme of my blog archives because it’s self-indulgent, egotistical and just annoying. It’s also startlingly transparent since these editorials are now likely to come from execs at companies and agencies whose goal is still to drum up business.

Many of the “problems” identified in such pieces are also only “problems” if you ignore the fact that that they’re often features of wildly successful products or companies. They may be slightly annoying or sub-optimal from a user-experience perspective, but they’re not massive issues requiring immediate fixes.

Take the recent attention paid to Netflix and how previews on the site’s home, category and search results pages auto-play when you hover over them with your mouse. There have been countless articles like this that have identified it as an issue that must be addressed lest Netflix suffer irreparable damage to its product and brand.

The reality is that it’s going to be fine. That UX might be slightly annoying, but it’s not the kind of thing that is likely to truly and strongly discourage anyone from using it, not when measured against the advantages of the service and site as a whole and what it offers. It’s a small speedbump, not a barrier to usage.

Still, the “X company has a problem that can be fixed in five easy steps” genre is an example in and of itself that marketing is often not about selling aspirational (if unattainable) goals but simply offering a solution to a problem. McDonald’s is selling customers 1) the idea that its food will help the whole family be happy, something every parent wants, and 2) a solution to the problem of not having enough time to make dinner for everyone given conflicting schedules, picky eating habits and other obstacles. Netflix wants subscribers to 1) feel well-informed on the shows and movies that are at the center of the cultural buzz, and 2) use it as a one-stop shop for all their viewing needs instead of subscribing to dozens of cable channels they never watch.

While there’s more than a little BS in the editorial genre of offering solutions to non-existent problems, it does reflect how quickly issues can escalate from the imagined to the very real, providing an opening in the corporate armor just big enough for a competitor to slide a knife.

There are real problems and there are trumped-up problems that “the internet is freaking out about” but which amount to nothing. People calling out the latter often overlook that these features are well-tested and considered and have some positive purpose. They haven’t been slapped up without forethought or planning, no matter how they’re made to sound by those looking to stir up a hornet’s nest.

“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.

Marketing Madness in 60 Seconds: 7/17/07

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People are voluntarily sharing more information than ever before even as they don’t want advertisers mining their online behavior for the purposes of serving up ads, despite research that shows ad relevance – and subsequently click rates – go up as a result. That’s an interesting paradox of the current age that’s free of easy answers.

People say they don’t go online for product and service recommendations but frequently share their own experiences and recommendations on those social sites. That seeming contrary behavior doesn’t mean brands are free to not participate and in fact should absolutely do so if they wish to remain relevant.

More coverage of the “sponsored posts” issue, this time focusing specifically on “mommybloggers” – the favorite of PR people everywhere for their influence and social circle – and the way they interact with the brands that are keen to get their attention. All of this has prompted one blogger to call for a “PR Blackout” week among mommybloggers that would be free of sponsored posts, product reviews and other such material and instead get back to moms talking about their kids, marriages and other topics that the blogs are *supposed* to be about. Caroline McCarthy points out that a week is not exactly a major period of time and highlights other wholes in the entire frustrating issue.

Nielsen has expanded its web measurement panel to be eight times larger then it had been, allowing for a larger sample size of sites and behavior and hopefully resulting in more accurate results.

Stephen Baker at BusinessWeek takes a look at the evolving world of behavioral targeting in advertising and marketing.

Despite the availability and growing acceptance of other forms of metrics, a Forrester report says most online marketers are still dependent on click-through rates to determine success.

Media

PaidContent rounds-up some of the thinking that’s been published about what to do with BusinessWeek in the wake of news the title’s publisher was looking to put it up for sale.

The editor of The Financial Times made comments expressing his belief that within a year most media organizations will be charging for content. He admits he’s unsure how the payment models will work from either the publisher or the reader standpoint but sees it as something that’s inevitable.

One initiative that’s leading that charge is Journalism Online, a company begun by media personality Steven Brill, that wants to create a single platform for multiple pubs to setup pay walls of some form. That group says it is getting close to launch but hasn’t released an initial affiliate list yet not because of lack of interest but because new pubs are being added so fast the list is out-of-date as soon as it’s updated.

Social Media

Fox Interactive wants to turn MySpace into an entertainment portal, according to reports. I’m confused as I thought that’s what it already largely was. Mashable thought likewise until it saw numbers from Hitwise that said differently. There also seems to be some lack of mission clarity internally.

I’m having increasing problems with companies that only respond to customer complaints when they’re being voiced on social networks and blogs while they still outsource and minimize the importance of their phone or other systems. The story of “United Breaks Guitars” is what’s got me thinking about this again.

Marketing Madness in 60 Seconds: 4/3/09

METRICS

TiVo says it will accommodate advertisers looking for more of its data on who watched what sort of programming – including advertising – by doubling the amount of households whose set-top boxes are included in the sample audience. Selling ratings data is seen by TiVo as being a big source of additional revenue.

PRNewswire will begin offering metrics around where and how the press releases companies issue through it are picked up online. That includes blog posts and more. PRN will then help companies who have a press release that doesn’t get wide pick-up figure out how to make the release rank higher among search results.

MEDIA

180 newspapers across the country have agreed to co-brand their online real-estate sections with Zillow.com. The papers are apparently looking to offload more of the heavy lifting and figured adding Zillow’s search and other functionality was a good place to start.

SOCIAL NETWORKING

Blog publisher/ad network Glam Media has launched Tinker, a new tool that aggregates Twitter conversations based on keywords and putting them into a single stream people can customize or simply follow.

Andrew Goodman asks the provocative question: Is Guy Kawasaki ruining Twitter? Well worth reading.

Facebook and Adobe have partnered to bring Flash to the developer platform for Facebook apps. Cause the world needs more Flash.

I’m whole-heartedly with Stephen Baker, who says he has no interest in functionality like a “vote up/down” button being added to Twitter, saying it’s just going to cause more problems than it solves.

Twitter says it’s going to do as good a job as it can in disclosing paid relationships, something that’s important to note as it enters into more of just those sort of relationships.

I’m guessing no, the average Facebook users doesn’t quite understand what they’re sharing when they log in to others sites with Facebook Connect. But I’m also guessing they wouldn’t care all that much if they did because it’s so convenient and online users have shown they’re increasingly fine with their data being used for better ad targeting.

ADVERTISING

Google is shuttering their AdSense for Video units, their program that allowed site publishers to post YouTube videos containing ads, at the end of April. This doesn’t effect the placement of video ads through AdSense, though, so don’t worry.

As part of their deal to post short-form video on YouTube, ABC/Disney will also be able to sell in-stream ads on those videos.

Advertisers and TV networks are beginning to take a less adversarial stance toward DVRs and the audience that uses them. Granted, that means a rise in product placement, ads that take over the bottom third of the screen for 30 seconds and other such tactics, but at least they’ve started adapting to the new reality rather than flailing against it.

A study commissioned by a print publisher and distributor of television programming says that print and TV ads have higher ROI than online advertising. Shocker.

The lead in this story about how cable companies are looking into more web-based functionality and viewing is buried. The real meat of the piece is that cable companies want more interactivity through set-top boxes because it means there’s potential for more interactive commercials to be distributed.

Broadcast networks saw online advertising revenue top $1 billion in 2008, a 36% increase over 2007.

ONLINE VIDEO

Hulu is growing in terms of visitors and overall audience but the advertising dollars aren’t growing at the same clip. It’s falling prey, unfortunately, to still being seen as “experimental” by buyers as well as the fact that the high-quality online video market is expanding on an almost daily basis.

YouTube is making a play for more of that professionally-produced – and therefore safe for brand advertisers – content by redesigning in such a way to clearly give that sort of content its own section, away from all the user-generated stuff. It’s clearly a response to Hulu and other sites and might wind up being a turning point in what kind of video gets posted to the site.

PUBLIC RELATIONS

Hmmm. A new survey says clients aren’t doing all that great in communicating goals and other important information to their agencies.

Jeremiah Owyang wonders what would happen if PR agencies started representing user communities instead of brands. This is kind of ridiculous since it fails to ask the questions of 1) What would these communities need an agency for, 2) Who’s the lead contact with the agency, 3) What can the agency do that the communities can’t, 4) Who’s going to pay the agency and about 17 others that I don’t have the time to go into.

Public relations supports advertising

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(Paid Vs. Earned Media by David Armano)

Highly recommended if you’re into such things are both Richard Laermer’s post on confusing public relations and advertising and David Armano’s Paid Media Vs. Earned Media thinking.

I’m not going to get into a debate about which is better, PR or advertising. They both serve their own purpose and, done well, can achieve the desired goals. But PR is in the unique position to be able to support an advertising effort in a way that advertising can’t truly support a PR campaign.

I alluded in my MMM: Fanboys column that part of the reason the campaign felt so half-hearted is that there wasn’t a big PR push behind it, something that really carried the urgency to see the movie to the public in a way that advertising can’t. Instead there were a smattering of interviews but no concerted effort to get the movie some publicity, something that’s the objective of a PR team.

Likewise this year’s Super Bowl ad buzz didn’t really kick in, as Tom points out, until about three days before the game. In previous years there were single spots that received full NYT stories about their creation and some companies even leaked teasers of highly-anticipated commercials to the online press.

I know because I was one of those doing the pitching of those spots for a couple companies in 2007 and 2008.

Both public relations and advertising are essential tools in the marketing mix. But PR is necessary to support advertising and make sure people are aware of it. It’s a problem I run into all the time here on MMM. A studio might have bought millions of dollars in advertising for a movie but because 1)I didn’t happen across it on TV or online, 2)There wasn’t a press story about it or 3) Nobody called to tell me about it I didn’t include it in the marketing review of that movie. That’s a failure.

98 percent of the point of advertising is to change/reinforce consumer behavior. (The remaining 2 percent is for the creator to make him/herself laugh.) But by putting PR people behind that advertising and making sure key influencers in your market are aware of it you can exponentially increase its effectiveness at a fraction of the cost of additional media buying dollars.