The Real Price We All Pay for “Brand Journalism”

propaganda babyThe historical roots of journalism, now encompassing all mass media, were nurtured by its role as The Fourth Estate; the independent public watchdog that keeps in check the three major democratic “estates” of power (in Britain the houses of Parliament, in America the three branches of government). So in spite of the great amount of attention it pays to murder trials, royal weddings and the lives of celebrities, the media plays a critical role in a democratic society; and to function properly it must be objective, unbiased, transparent and independent.

One current challenge to journalism’s mandate is that the line between news and entertainment continues to erode. All media sources compete for the same eyeballs, so speed has become more important than accuracy in reporting, and there are no rules regarding how the news is gathered. The journalist’s role has shifted from fact-based reporting to opinion-based commentary. Journalism has morphed into “communitainment.” And Edward R. Murrow is not pleased.

Erosion of journalism’s mandate has accelerated with the growth of “brand journalism,” which is content specifically created to promote commercial interests, very often in a non-transparent manner. Promotional messaging that for decades had been identified and quarantined by the media as ADVERTORIAL content – now safely re-branded as “sponsored” or “native” content – has gained legitimacy as bona fide editorial information worthy of placement in the New York Times or the CBS Evening News.

We live in a world where our knowledge, perceptions and culture are shaped by Google searches, Facebook posts and YouTube videos, and where technology and economic forces have created the perfect Petri dish for commercial agendas to overwhelm the volume and attention given to objective editorial interests. So is there a price to be paid for the loss of a free and independent press?

A few years ago, veteran journalist Bill Moyers explained what’s happened to journalism this way: “Our dominant media are ultimately accountable only to corporate boards whose mission is not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the whole body of our republic, but the aggrandizement of corporate executives and shareholders…These organizations’ self-styled mandate is not to hold public and private power accountable, but to aggregate their interlocking interests. Their reward is not to help fulfill the social compact embodied in the notion of “We, the people,” but to manufacture news and information as profitable consumer commodities.” [Read Bill Moyers “Is the Fourth Estate a Fifth Column?: Corporate media colludes with democracy’s demise” in its entirety.]

As we continue to feast on mind-numbing, easily digested communitainment, and as we readily accept well-disguised commercialized propaganda as objective news and information…let’s keep in mind what we’re really giving up.

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Re-Thinking the “Best B2B Advertisement of the 20th Century”

the-man-in-the-chair-mcgraw-hill-885x1024In 1958, Gilbert Morris – an account executive at the Fuller Smith & Ross ad agency – created the, “I don’t know who you are,” business-to-business advertisement for McGraw-Hill Publishing Co. that 41 years later, in 1999, was named the “Best Business-to-Business Ad of the 20th Century” by Advertising Age’s Business Marketing magazine. Quite an achievement.

The iconic print display ad featured an executive in a bow tie hunched forward in a swivel chair, scowling into the camera. (In fact, Gilbert Morris himself was depicted as the executive in the ad.) To promote the practical value of corporate advertising, the ad’s body copy read:

“I don’t know you.

I don’t know your company.

I don’t know your company’s product.

I don’t know what your company stands for.

I don’t know your company’s customers.

I don’t know your company’s record.

I don’t know your company’s reputation.

Now, what was it you wanted to sell me?”

The 56 year-old McGraw-Hill ad concluded with this:

“Moral: Sales start before your salesman calls – with business publication advertising.”

What may have been a revolutionary B2B marketing concept in 1958 is now well understood by B2B marketers. Market awareness, brand impressions and 3rd party endorsements all matter. Sales and marketing must be integrated. We’ve got all that.

But if Gilbert Morris were writing ad copy in 2014, his advertisement would likely reflect very different marketing obstacles for B2B companies. Perhaps something like this:

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PR Playbook: Earning Your Seat at the Senior Management Table

While waiting for the PR profession-at-large to earn a place at the senior management table, current practitioners should develop their own company-specific strategies that will enable them to rub shoulders on an equal basis with their counterparts in finance, legal, marketing, operations or technology. The timeworn adage, “Think globally, act locally,” applies very well here.

Here are a few tactics to consider for your personal campaign to gain a seat:

  • Clarify PR’s Role – The most pragmatic answer to “What is PR?” may be: “Whatever your employer (or client) needs it to be.” Exploration of how the PR profession can be applied to achieve tangible benefits for your organization begins with frank and perhaps eye-opening conversations with senior managers to gain a first-hand understanding of their current perceptions and expectations of PR. You may be surprised at the depth of misunderstanding that exists within your organization regarding your activity and its value. This is an opportunity to clarify what PR does or can do for them, to identify their needs and establish expectations.
  • Get Quantitative – The nature of PR tactics can make it difficult to demonstrate a direct correlation between that activity and tangible business outcomes. Most senior executives accept that reality, and do not expect PR to be a profit center. However, PR practitioners who understand the bottom-line orientation of the business world make it a priority to connect the dots internally, by explaining and highlighting what role PR has played in helping to produce results – whether those outcomes are measured in lead generation, search engine page rankings, revenue growth, employee satisfaction or customer experience.
  • Speak Their Language – It’s not necessary to understand all the technicalities, issues or nuances related to various corporate functions, but you need to know what’s important. For example, your CFO does not expect you to be up-to-date on Dodd-Frank compliance, but does expect you to be well-versed regarding the company’s business model (how it makes and spends money), its competitive landscape, key legislation and enterprise priorities such as market share, acquisition or going public. Speaking your company’s language has less to do with knowing balance sheet terminology, and more to do with being tuned into what’s on the priority list of its senior team and your ability to adapt PR strategies to support those goals.
  • Get Strategic – As a staff function, PR is often viewed as corporate overhead, and expendable when times get tough. Making PR an essential element in line function strategies can build internal support as well as career longevity. To make PR indispensible within your organization, focus on activities that are valued by senior management. These are typically tactics that make the phones ring, or move the revenue needle. For example, drive a successful effort to get your company’s whiz-bang technology included in a respected industry benchmark such as the Gartner Magic Quadrant (ideally, without paying Gartner’s hefty subscription fee), and watch the PR department’s stature rise internally.
  • Act Like an Agency – Outside PR firms live or die by the level of service and results they deliver to clients. An agency’s motivation and enthusiasm are driven by an appreciation that if they fail to meet expectations or add value, they will likely be replaced. Corporate PR practitioners who adopt an agency mindset – treating each operational function as an outside PR agency might manage a client – can build internal support across the organization. From a practical standpoint, this means understanding what your internal clients need, developing tailored plans of action, being accountable for agreed-upon deliverables and maintaining a sense of urgency.
  • Be Fearless – You must serve as the PR function’s ambassador within your company. Keep the pom-poms in the file cabinet, but don’t be shy about discussing what’s working, as well as what’s not and why. If you don’t point out PR’s contribution to the top or bottom lines, no one else will. Conversely, if you don’t put shortcomings out on the table, someone else is likely to do that for you. And if you’re in an environment where honest conversations regarding success and failure are not fostered, then it may not be a management table where you want to be seated.
  • Get a Life – A PR practitioner’s internal reputation and stature are also shaped by professional involvement outside of the company. Your public relations skills can be of great value to civic, charitable and cause-related organizations, and regardless of the motivation for contributing your time, these affiliations represent 3rd party validation of your expertise. This experience also broadens your career horizons, sharpens your professional capabilities and can be personally rewarding and fun.

Best practices established by individual PR professionals – not PRSA lobbying, or PR courses in MBA curricula – represent the profession’s most valuable resource in its effort to move public relations from the management farm team to the big leagues. Over time, as more practitioners gain seats, including PR in the corporate decision-making process is likely to become standard practice, rather than the exception.

Bill Gates learned the “by invitation only” lesson the hard way when he was denied admission to the prestigious August National Golf Club, because he publicly expressed an interest in becoming a member. Similarly, if you want a seat at your company’s senior management table, you won’t get there by asking for it; so take the steps necessary to earn yourself an invitation.

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Confucius Say: Your Case Studies are Worthless

confuciusThe most noteworthy article on B2B selling was published in a 1966 Harvard Business Review article (#66213). In “How to Buy /Sell Professional Services,” author Warren J. Wittreich explains the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic selling.

Extrinsic selling occurs, according to Wittreich, when a B2B seller relies on successful work that’s been performed for other customers, as a means to validate the seller’s capabilities and potential ability to perform for a prospective customer.

The weakness of extrinsic selling is that it requires a prospective customer to make a leap of faith: to believe the service provider will provide a level of success that matches or exceeds the work performed for the seller’s past or current clients. Extrinsic selling is a “trust me” approach, employed by a great number of B2B product and service providers.

Conversely, intrinsic selling does not require a prospective client to base its selection of a seller based on work done for others. No leap of faith required. Instead, it engages the prospect in a meaningful dialogue that (1) addresses their specific situation; (2) demonstrates — on an immediate, first-hand basis — the seller’s understanding of the situation; and (3) validates the seller’s ability to help the potential buyer. Intrinsic selling provides buyers with a significantly higher level of confidence in the seller’s capabilities, and leads to an engagement or sale far more frequently and rapidly than extrinsic selling.

The B2B marketer’s task is to equip the sales force with methodologies and tools that help initiate and facilitate intrinsic selling. This goal is rarely accomplished through anonymous or identified client / customer “case studies,” which are widely used, that prospective clients rarely read, and often carry the same level of credibility as references on a job applicant’s resume. (Would a company ever publish examples of its past work that were not portrayed as highly successful?)

Create Tools to Engage Prospects

One example of effective B2B intrinsic selling involved Phibro Energy’s introduction of energy derivatives…which enabled large companies to manage price risk related to gasoline, jet fuel and heating oil. To capture the attention of CFOs of those companies, and to convince them that energy derivatives were a viable risk management strategy, Phibro’s sales force needed more than brochureware. A prospective client needed to understand exactly how energy derivatives would benefit his company.

To establish an intrinsic sales dynamic, Phibro equipped its sales reps with a worksheet that calculated the range and depth of the prospect’s energy price exposure. Then, by applying a sophisticated algorithm, the sales rep was able to show exactly how energy risk management could improve the CFO’s company’s balance sheet.

Phibro’s energy exposure worksheet not only enabled their sales reps to establish an intrinsic sales dynamic, it cast the sales rep in a consultative role, and positioned Phibro Energy as a resource that could help reduce economic risk and lower operating costs.

Marketers at most B2B businesses, as well as many B2C firms, have similar opportunities to build interactive disciplines and tools — both online and offline — that can empower their sales reps to leverage the power of intrinsic selling. In taking this approach, they also benefit from the wisdom of the marketing master, Confucius, who purportedly wrote:

 I hear…and I forget.

I see…and I remember.

I do…and I understand.

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How WebMD Has Changed B2B Marketing Forever

webmd2Many B2B companies, and professional services firms in particular, do not succeed at marketing for two major reasons:

  • Failure to understand that the vendor selection process has fundamentally changed.

Prospective customers now turn to their personal networks and publicly available information — via digital and social media channels—to self-diagnose their problems and to self-prescribe their own solutions. In this new WebMD World of B2B Marketing, making the short list of potential vendors relies heavily on being visible and appearing smart in appropriate online channels on a consistent basis.

To appreciate the magnitude of this shift in how customers select outside resources, consider 2012 market research conducted by the Corporate Executive Board’s Marketing Leadership Council, which surveyed more than 1,500 customer contacts (decision makers and influencers in a recent major business purchase) for 22 large B2B organizations spanning all major NAICS categories and 10 industries. As depicted below, the survey revealed that the average customer had completed nearly 60% of the purchase decision-making process prior to engaging a supplier sales rep directly.  At the upper limit, the responses ran as high as 70%.

57

The implications of this research are clear: B2B companies that fail to “show up strong” in the online world are missing engagement opportunities with potential as well as existing clients.

  • Failure to respond properly to the new vendor selection process.

Unfortunately, many B2B companies that understand the new dynamics of vendor selection have responded in knee-jerk fashion, by saturating every possible online / digital channel and social media platform with content that neither reaches nor resonates with decision makers in their target audiences. Although buyer selection habits have changed, when it comes to brand awareness and positioning of a company’s value proposition, less is still more. And this chart explains why:

Attention Web

The online world makes it easy to obtain information, but extremely difficult to gain attention over all the noise. Increasingly, B2B firms are learning that simply having all the online visibility tools – company blog, Twitter account, Facebook page, LinkedIn profile, etc. – does not guarantee marketplace attention. They’re also learning that tactics designed to feed those online beasts – most often “currated content” from 3rd parties – can be akin to the “throw some shit on the wall and hope something sticks” marketing approach.

The firms benefitting most from the new WebMD World of B2B Marketing apply traditional marketing disciplines: they stake out intellectual territory that supports their brand with insights that are relevant and interesting to clients, prospects and referrals sources; they drive top-of-mind awareness (and new business inquiries) by ensuring that those target audiences receive their insights on a consistent basis; they create opportunities to engage, rather than talk at, decision makers; and they use online tools to enhance, rather than replace, direct communication with existing and prospective customers.

 

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The Attention Web: What B2B Marketers Need to Know

For B2B marketers who are too busy to keep up-to-date on every marketing trend and buzzword, here are a few thoughts on all the current noise about the Attention Web:

  • Attention as a marketing asset is not a new concept: Top-of-mind awareness has always served as a cornerstone of effective B2B marketing.  In their 2001 book, The Attention Economy, social scholars Thomas Davenport and John Beck proposed that in today’s information-flooded world, the most scarce resource does not involve ideas, money or talent. They argued that unless companies learn to effectively capture, manage and maintain attention – both internally and in the marketplace – they will fail. Here’s one way to understand what’s happening:

Attention Web

  • Pageviews, Likes, Clicks, Shares and Downloads do not measure engagement: Now that the advertising industry is using actual data to evaluate online behavior, smart B2B marketers can validate what they’ve always suspected about the metrics that are used to measure the effectiveness of the content they produce. There is now hard evidence that shows the number of clicks, comments, and shares are not indicative of how much time people spend engaged with the actual content. One recent study, reflected below – produced by Chartbeat and based on a boatload of data – demonstrates that there is no relationship between how often a piece of content is shared and the amount of attention the average reader will give that content. The good news for B2B marketers is that there are now editorial analytic tools that can provide attention and engagement metrics and insights.

article sharing

  • Attention, engagement and business relationships are driven by quality content: Beyond whatever products or services they sell, all B2B companies must establish credibility and trust with clients, prospects and referral sources. Initial inquiries and longstanding relationships are not nurtured by bombarding target audiences with aggregated content from 3rd parties. The most successful B2B firms only associate their brand with highly relevant content, most often home-grown, that supports their value proposition, stakes out intellectual territory, avoids self-serving claims and truly differentiates their company from competitors. Less can be more, when it comes to B2B content.

 

  • Don’t rely on the internet exclusively to generate market attention. For B2B firms, direct communication (email, snail mail, face-to-face, etc.) with target audiences remains the most effective means of gaining and maintaining engagement. If you’ve created high quality content, ensure that it earns an adequate marketing ROI by consistently putting it in front of the right people; don’t expect them to find your content by themselves on your company website or blog, on LinkedIn or through Twitter. Those online channels should be considered a secondary, rather than the primary means, of generating attention and engagement through content.

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Peter Drucker on “The Four Roles of the CFO”

Dr. Peter F. Drucker, Management Thought Leader

In the early 1990s, Highlander Consulting was engaged by Phibro Energy to help introduce energy derivatives to Chief Financial Officers at corporations with substantial exposure to fluctuations in oil, gasoline and jet fuel prices.

As part of an integrated marketing strategy, management legend Dr. Peter F. Drucker, then serving as a professor at Claremont Graduate School, was engaged to serve as keynote speaker at the Phibro Energy Risk Management Forum, held at The Metropolitan Club in New York City.

Dr. Drucker, who passed away at age 95 in 2005, chose to speak on what he called, “The Four Roles of the CFO.” His remarks before more than 200 CFOs appear to be as relevant now as when he spoke to them nearly 25 years ago.

Here are some highlights from Peter Drucker’s presentation, which can not be found in any one of his 39 books:

The CFO as Information Officer:

“The original role of the CFO was to be the information officer of the business…Accounting, which is information, is changing today more than it has changed in the last hundred years…CFOs will have to make an important decision for their companies not very far down the line, on how to get rid of the pernicious rift between information that is concept-focused, which is accounting, and information that is transaction-focused, which is computerized information…

“The notion that you should split these two universes of information between the Chief Financial Officer, who is responsible for financial information, and the Chief Information Officer, who is responsible for non-financial information is not a good idea…

“The only reliable information we have available to us basically is “inside” information, mostly in our accounting systems. And yet, the events that really determine the success of business do not happen on the inside…So CFOs have a big job ahead: bringing together information channels, and learning an accounting system that’s going to be very different. It will require an ability to get “inside” information by manipulating figures quickly, and combining it with “outside” information, which is largely anecdotal today.”

The CFO as Financial Advisor:

“The Chief Financial Officer must think about the financial consequences of projected policies and actions, not only in terms of costs but in terms of the allocation of scarce resources…So the chief financial adviser’s job is to think about opportunity costs, and most CFOs don’t do this…As a CFO, you must think about what a policy or project is likely to return. Also think about the consequences if it doesn’t work…So the chief financial adviser basically is a conscience, a financial conscience.”

The CFO as Productivity Manager:

“There is a third CFO function, which is managing money for the business. I’m not talking of the treasury function; that is only a small part of it. The biggest part of this involves managing the productivity of capital…It’s my view that you can increase the productivity of capital in any organization three percent a year compounded, by just plain hard work, provided it’s allocated properly. And this is a function which is not, bluntly, on your professional agenda today…

“Top management doesn’t think financially. They think in terms of next quarter’s dividend, and that’s not thinking financially. They don’t think in terms of the financial impact of business decisions and the business impact of financial decisions. And that, I think, is your biggest educational job ahead.”

The CFO as Asset Protector:

“The fourth dimension of the CFO’s role is the preservation and protection of assets. This is a duty of a company that benefits not only the shareholders, but also society…The stupidest thing you can do is attempt to predict the future. Brilliant people have seen that those who predict eventually come to grief. Truly brilliant people understand that they must make external fluctuations irrelevant to their business…

“The protection of assets involves making sure that the risks over which you have no control are managed, and do not interfere with the conduct of the business. Losses based on fluctuations of commodities are no longer permissible, any more than it is permitted to have a factory burn down without insurance coverage. These are manageable risks.”

If you’d like to receive a copy of Peter Drucker’s complete remarks at the Phibro Energy Risk Management Forum in 1991, just shoot me a note.

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