Client Newsletters: Empty Suit of the B2B Marketing Mix

Most Client Newsletters Deliver No Tangible Value

Most Client Newsletters Deliver No Tangible Business Value

Client newsletters are the most widely used, often abused and hotly debated B2B marketing tactic for professional services firms of any size. Here are three highly subjective myths and realities to help your firm determine whether it’s a worthwhile tool, or how to improve your current newsletter.

MYTH #1:        Your Firm Needs a Client Newsletter

Marketers want you to believe that your firm needs a client newsletter. But traditional newsletters – containing commentary ranging from tax legislation to new technology, or who’s joined the firm – are not a marketing necessity. In fact, at many firms their client newsletter is a marketing albatross. Each issue involves a frustrating hunt for timely information of genuine interest that has not already been provided to clients by another news source. Some firms avoid this pain by slapping their logo on boilerplate content purchased from a 3rd party, but those firms can pay a bigger price, in terms of brand damage. Canned content says to target audiences, “We value our relationship, but we don’t really care enough (or know enough) to produce our own newsletter.”

REALITY #1:     Your Firm Needs to Drive Top-of-Mind Awareness

The intrinsic purpose of tactics that communicate with clients, prospects and referral sources is to reinforce the perception that your firm is smart, trustworthy and prepared to help. Beyond keeping and growing existing clients, your primary marketing goal is to drive top-of-mind awareness with target audiences. That way, when a prospect is seeking assistance, there’s a greater likelihood your firm will be selected, or at least will be put on the “short list” of candidates. If that’s the goal, then consistency and quality of the contact are critical; neither of which necessarily require a newsletter format to accomplish.

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MYTH #2:        People Want to Learn About Your Firm’s Success

It’s nice to think that clients and prospects really care about your firm’s growth and accomplishments. The sad truth is that your success is more important to your competitors, and to current and prospective employees than it is to clients who generate revenue for the firm. Blowing your own horn can also backfire. When your firm touts that a senior partner has just published a book and was a guest on CNBC, your target audiences may wonder why that partner isn’t focused on client matters rather than self-promotion, or whether the cost of his book’s publicity tour will result in higher hourly rates.

REALITY #2:     Your Clients, Prospects and Referral Sources Care about Themselves

Understanding that all people are self-interested can make you a better marketer. Rather than creating newsletter content that’s based on what you know, on what you’ve done or on what you can do, focus instead on the ideas, talents and accomplishments of your target audiences, regardless of whether your firm played any role in their success. This is a very tough concept for many B2B firms to understand and embrace: that the most powerful form of thought leadership does not involve pushing out your own ideas. Instead, it involves deciding what ideas merit the attention of your target audiences, as well as what voices are worth listening to. True thought leaders seek to manage the conversation, not to control it.

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MYTH #3:        A Newsletter is a Cost-Effective Marketing Tactic

The old saw, “Cheap is dear” rings true when it comes to newsletters. If it’s created in-house, few firms actually track the hours required to write, edit, approve and publish their newsletter. If it consists of cut & paste content, few firms consider the cost of producing a newsletter that very few people will read or respect. Regardless of content, only a small number of professional service firms proactively work to expand their newsletter’s reach, to maintain an adequate CRM capability, or to properly leverage readership analytics from open and click-thru rates, if their newsletter is delivered online.

REALITY #3:     Your Marketing Requires More than a One-Way Conversation

Newsletters are one-way conversations. A fundamental marketing objective is to engage clients and prospects in a conversation regarding their specific needs and opportunities. Despite the buzz regarding social media, that channel can also fall short in terms of engagement. If your firm’s traditional and social media marketing tactics do not serve as catalysts to drive Face-to-Face discussions and Word-of-Mouth referrals, then their “cost-effectiveness” can never be measured on a meaningful basis.

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Stop the Insanity. Fire Your PR Firm in 2014.

The attribution is unsupported, but Albert Einstein is often credited with the quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” Its source notwithstanding, the axiom applies perfectly to the great number of companies that retain PR firms, year after year, to generate publicity that will have little or no impact on tangible business outcomes.

Over the past 5 decades, to rationalize hefty monthly fees, the PR profession has successfully promoted three underlying assumptions:

  • Any publicity is good publicity.
  • The more publicity, the better.
  • Publicity generates revenue.

Here are just a few reasons why it’s insane for most businesses to base their marketing strategy on any of those assumptions:

  1. Lots of Media Exposure is Worthless. The “worthless media” category can include one-off quotes or mentions in round-up stories that also reference your competitors…if you’ve gained no unique mindshare.  It can include appearances on network and cable TV…if the topics have a short shelf-life, or are unlikely to be of interest to target audiences.  And it always includes exposure in advertorials (regardless of the sponsoring publication’s stature) and feature articles in pay-to-play vanity publications…because you gain no credible 3rd party validation.
  2. Counting Media Clips is a Zero Sum Game. PR firms often justify their value by the sheer volume of media exposure they generate…regardless of whether it stakes out intellectual territory, supports a client’s value proposition, or differentiates them in the marketplace. The goal should be to create an arsenal of effective credibility tools; not simply to generate clippings to hang like hunting trophies in the “Media” section of a website.  This zero sum game is also played in social media, where scorecards of “likes” and “followers” are used as hollow substitutes for meaningful business metrics.
  3. It’s All About Merchandising. Business leaders must address two key questions in advance of seeking any publicity: “1. What type of media exposure will benefit us most?” and “2. If we gain that exposure, what will we DO with it?” Responses to Question #2 must provide clear direction regarding how it will support the firm’s sales and marketing strategy; how it will be used to drive leads; how it will initiate meaningful conversations with clients and prospects; and how it can be leveraged to gain other opportunities for targeted exposure.

Most PR firms fail to deliver on the potential of their craft because performing it correctly requires really hard work, takes time, and demands accountability for business results. Your role as a responsible client requires that you hold your PR agency’s feet to the fire by expecting results that have a measurable impact on your company’s balance sheet. It also means that you must provide your agency with the time and guidance necessary for them to deliver something more than a pile of useless press clippings.

If you’re unwilling to make that commitment, or if they’re incapable of delivering on your expectations, then it’s time to stop the insanity. Fire your PR firm in 2014.

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Should PRSA Sanction Public Relations Practitioners?

In his most recent bi-weekly column on customer service, “The Haggler,” New York Times writer David Segal addressed a long-standing and well-founded gripe that many journalists have against public relations practitioners who send out press releases and other solicitations in wholesale fashion; regardless of the content’s relevance or likely interest to the journalists they’re pitching. According to Segal, hundreds of thousands of these unsolicited pitches – or “P.R. Spam,” as he calls it – “belly flop into the email systems of journalists every day.”

The relationship between journalists and PR professionals has always been contentious. Reporters claim PR people block their access to sources, and sometimes to the truth. PR counters that journalists often don’t care about facts, or twist them to suit their editorial agenda. But because the press can deliver exposure and credibility that PR craves, journalists have always been in a more powerful position. As a result, effective public relations involves pushing a company’s or client’s agenda (or products and services) without being a pest, and ideally, by being helpful to reporters who are in a position to reciprocate with media coverage. It’s a dance that both sides understand.

Over the past decade, three developments have upset the already rocky relationship between PR and the press:

  • Email, and “blast email” in particular, has become PR’s most frequently used communication device. Standard PR procedure at most firms and agencies is based on “shotgun” tactics designed to reach as many media sources as possible, relevance or interest notwithstanding.
  • Database companies, notably Cision and Vocus, empower PR people to create enormous lists of journalists in a matter of minutes. What was once a painstaking research process now involves a few keystrokes.
  • The internet and a fundamental shift in how news is reported have greatly reduced the number of journalists. Conversely, more schools are pumping out graduates with PR degrees. So there are now significantly more PR people chasing a much smaller number of journalists. And many newly minted PR people have not been taught the unwritten rules of effective media relations.

Why should serious PR practitioners care about the behavior of the growing number of people within their profession who display no regard for fundamental media relations protocol?

In his column, New York Times’ David Segal reports that he has removed his contact information from the 5 leading media database companies. Calling on other reporters who also seek fewer unsolicited intrusions in their mailboxes, Segal provides detailed instructions on how they can delete their listings from those databases.

But it matters very little whether Segal is the canary in the coal mine for this issue, foreshadowing mass defections of journalists from online databases; thereby making those tools useless. In fact, PR may also be better served without them.

What does matter is that this sloppy, lazy, abusive practice of media harassment by so many PR people increasingly harms the stature of the profession, and makes it even more difficult for serious practitioners to work effectively with the press.

Public relations has fought for decades to be recognized as a bona fide profession, similar to medicine, law or accounting. But until the profession is in a position to self-regulate – to reprimand or sanction, in transparent fashion, individual practitioners or organizations that harm the reputation and effectiveness of the discipline – PR can never be considered a legitimate profession. It will remain a business function, nothing more.

If the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), in its role as the industry’s trade association, has serious interest in protecting the reputation and collective interests of the nation’s public relations franchise, the issue highlighted by David Segal provides an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership by reversing a troubling trend. An online “complaint box” for journalists to identify abuse, combined with a “Wall of Shame” to call out repeat offenders – both featured on the PRSA website – might be an effective first step in changing industry behavior.

Any other ideas?

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Why Public Relations Does Not Sit at the Senior Management Table

In his keynote address two years ago at the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) 50th Annual Distinguished Lecture and Awards Dinner, Richard Edelman – President & CEO of the world’s largest independent public relations firm – echoed the PR profession’s long-standing goal: “…to elevate public relations as a management discipline that sits as a full partner aside finance, operations, legal, marketing and strategic leaders in the C-Suite.”

If the Edward Bernays era is considered the profession’s starting point, then public relations has had nearly a century to earn its seat at senior management’s table. But there are two major reasons – involving credentials and values – why PR still does not, and may never, sit there.

  1. PR Lacks Credentials: Notably, the profession has no accepted body of knowledge, and lacks professional standards of practice that are supervised or enforced. Unlike law, medicine, accounting or engineering, it’s difficult to define or validate expertise in public relations – as evidenced, for example, by the volume of information and disagreement on issues as fundamental as press release protocol. Despite PRSA’s best efforts, its APR designation does not carry the same weight as MD, JD, CPA, CFA, an MBA degree, or even a Six Sigma belt.

This credentials dilemma for PR also involves the fact that other professions such as information technology, with far less than a century of corporate membership and a similar lack of credentials, have earned a prominent place at the management table.

  1. PR Enforces Values: Ideally, public relations should function as the conscience of an organization; defining what it stands for, and working to make it accountable on that basis. Unlike any other corporate management function, the role of PR involves holding a company’s feet to the fire in terms of institutional values. Either because a particular course of action is simply the “right thing” to do (for sake of transparency, honesty or fairness), or because it may cause unwanted problems (involving morale, public opinion or legalities), it’s the job of public relations to raise its hand.

This values dilemma for PR involves the fact that many senior corporate managers who have a longstanding and secure seat at the management table and who drive most decision-making would prefer not to make their decisions with Jiminy Cricket in the same room.

Not giving PR a voice in corporate decision-making, and instead relegating its role to spinning a decided course of action or to cleaning up a related messy aftermath, appears to be the preferred approach for senior management at most corporations. At the upper end of the corporate food chain, executives whose function is listed as either Public Relations or Corporate Communications are rarely included in the Schedule 14A proxy filings as a “Named Executive Officer” by FORTUNE 500 companies. Corporate America’s NEO list clearly defines what’s meant by the “senior management table,” and the PR profession is absent by design, not oversight.

PR’s Plan to Earn a Seat at the Table

Perhaps for the first time – reflected in Richard Edelman’s stated plan to harness PR’s collective brain trust to address this issue, and the current push for inclusion of public relations in MBA school curricula – the profession appears ready to take meaningful steps to gain the corporate legitimacy it has long coveted. But these efforts will take many years to yield change, and talented PR practitioners and potential industry newcomers may consider other career paths rather than wait, thereby compounding the problem.

Regardless of size or industry, companies change direction either when they believe change will provide economic benefit, to avoid defined risks, or when they are forced to change by regulation or competitive influence. The delta between the PR function and revenue generation eliminates that rationale from consideration as a means to argue inclusion of public relations at the management table. However, both risk and regulation are strong cards PR is entitled to play in its effort to gain a seat there.

For example, to quantify the tangible value of PR, it could be beneficial for the profession to conduct research that compares the long-term stock price volatility (or beta) of public companies that include PR in its senior level decision-making process against those companies that do not. If a stock’s beta reflects market uncertainty, then a company’s track record of consistently avoiding “PR problems” as well as its ability to address those issues quickly and effectively – as a result of having a PR professional involved in operational decisions – should have a measurable effect on its stock market valuation, cost of capital and brand reputation.

Armed with objective evidence that supports the inclusion of PR as a best practice of corporate governance, the profession will have a solid platform that resonates with CXOs. Corporate America’s boards of directors may then be far more likely to require that management include PR in all strategic decisions, and issuers of Directors & Officers liability insurance might begin to factor a company’s PR discipline into pricing of its policy premiums.

To earn a seat at the management table, PR must argue its case with hard, relevant facts that will either incent or coerce companies to change. Otherwise, the keynote speaker at IPR’s 100th Distinguished Lecture and Awards Dinner in 2061 will be echoing Richard Edelman’s aspirations for the profession.

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Make Your Corporate Anniversary Worth Celebrating

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B2B firms that have flourished for 20, 30 or 50 years are understandably proud of their longevity, particularly after having endured the most recent decade’s harsh economic conditions. But many of those companies do not leverage their achievement, by failing to capture the attention, interest and engagement of the internal and external audiences that will determine their continued success.

Too often important corporate milestones are treated in a manner similar to a wedding anniversary: companies will send out an announcement (press release, advertisement or email blast), host a modest reception, and provide a memento to a select number of longstanding clients.

These traditional corporate anniversary tactics may yield a few congratulatory notes, but will not deliver what might have been achieved – in terms of confirming core values, building corporate culture, and reinforcing brand presence – if the company had approached the opportunity in a strategic manner.

As a starting point, effective corporate anniversaries require the same high level of planning discipline that’s applied to other aspects of business development at the firm, which should include:

  • Articulation of measurable business objectives the program will seek to achieve;
  • Identification and prioritization of the target audiences the program will reach and influence, including employees, current and prospective clients, suppliers, referral sources, the media, etc.;
  • Framing the core messages that will be expressed through the program, and
  • How success of the anniversary program will be evaluated.

Based on that strategic groundwork, a company is well-prepared to identify appropriate tactics, make well-informed decisions regarding budgetary allocations, assign responsibilities for tactical implementation, and to build a program calendar.

Ideally, a corporate anniversary strategy is based on a limited number of high-quality tactics, rather than a long list of activities with limited impact or strategic value. A few examples of high value tactics might include:

  • Logo Modification – This need not be elaborate or permanent, and might also include a forward-looking tag line or theme. A simple “Celebrating 25 Years” or “Since 1988” can easily be integrated into an existing logo design. The reference can also be integrated into email signatures of all employees.
  • Website Visibility – This can be as simple as an anniversary banner at the bottom corner of the home page, or as elaborate as a corporate timeline or new “history” section that explains significant events since the company’s founding.
  • Client / Employee Gifts – If it’s deemed appropriate to give an anniversary gift to long-time clients, employees or suppliers, these gifts should be personalized and delivered in a very personal manner; either presented individually and in person, or accompanied by a customized letter from the CEO, managing partner or owners.
  • History Wall – This multi-media display, consisting of photographs and historical artifacts, displayed in the firm’s lobby or a conference room, can serve as a permanent and updatable validation of the company’s milestones and achievements.
  • Client-Focused Ad Campaign – Rather than touting your company’s anniversary, select 4 or 5 blue chip clients who are willing to be profiled in an advertising campaign that promotes their longevity and success. Passing (rather than direct) reference to the length of your firm’s relationships with those clients suggests that your company puts client interests ahead of its own.
  • Video Profiles – To humanize the firm, and pay tribute to long-time employees, video interviews can showcase the personal stories, values and dedication that have served as the cornerstone of the company’s success. These 2 – 3 minute videos can be posted on the corporate website, and on the company’s social media sites.
  • Earned Media – Press releases announcing corporate anniversaries are of little interest to most journalists. But if your company has an interesting or inspirational story to tell – involving hardship, unique challenges, failure or creativity – it’s well worth soliciting interest from appropriate media sources. Positive coverage in respected business or trade publications provides valuable 3rd party endorsement of your company’s long-term achievement.
  •  Philanthropy – Rather than hosting an expensive celebration or social event, a charitable tactic may generate greater client goodwill and provide opportunities to promote the firm’s anniversary (and underlying values.) These tactics might include scholarships, research grants, sponsorships, named donations, fundraisers, etc. that are related to the firm’s business or mission.
  • Recurring Content  – To sustain top-of-mind awareness related to the firm’s anniversary and reinforce thought leadership, firms can publish and distribute theme-based content that’s likely to be of interest to target audiences. For example, an accounting firm celebrating its 25th anniversary might publish an interview series featuring CEOs of 25 long-term clients, who share the best business advice they’ve ever received. If published monthly, this tactic represents 12 separate opportunities to promote the firm’s anniversary.

The depth and range of anniversary-related tactics that can be leveraged by B2B firms is limited only by creativity and budget. But activity is not the benchmark for success. The real challenge involves alignment of strategy and tactics to achieve tangible business outcomes.

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Five Life Lessons from Doc Martin

Entertainment Craftsmanship: What Missing from American Television

Entertainment Craftsmanship: What’s Missing from American Television

Although a similar-sounding name brings footwear to mind for most Americans, “Doc Martin” is a British television series that follows the fictional life of Dr. Martin Ellingham, a brilliant but extremely grumpy (dog-hating) vascular surgeon whose medical career is sidelined after he develops a fear of blood. This unfortunate turn of events takes him to the (fictional) Cornwall seaside village of Portwenn where, as a general practitioner, his gruff, short-tempered manner conflicts with the laid-back, folksy manner of the villagers.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, you’re missing several things that American television has long been lacking, including great scriptwriting and acting, sophisticated humor and genuinely interesting characters. Doc Martin is pure television craftsmanship and well worth your time to watch all of the episodes from the past 5 seasons on Netflix.

Worldwide followers of the series eagerly await Season 6, set to begin this fall, which is purportedly its last. Addicted fans are preparing themselves for withdrawal, as the show’s creators understand that it’s always better to leave fans hungry for more, than it is to jump the shark with sloppy scriptwriting and worn-out or ridiculous plot lines.

Because Doc Martin offers viewers simple but enduring life lessons, the show’s legacy is secure. Here are a few things this blogger will always remember:

It’s OK to say “No!”  There’s rarely any doubt regarding where Doc Martin stands on an issue. No long explanations regarding the motivation or feelings behind his decisions. No sugar-coating. The downside of this approach is that people can be put off by the lack of diplomacy. The upside is that when you do say “Yes!” people understand that your decision is genuine, and not simply intended to make them feel good.

Know Your Stuff.  Even people whose personalities clash with Doc Martin appreciate (eventually) that he’s a skilled practitioner who has their best interests at heart.  He has the observational skills of Sherlock Holmes, and encyclopedic knowledge of every disease and malady known to mankind. Importantly, despite his lowbrow patients (compared with his London practice) he continues to study his craft and works to improve it. People will forgive personality shortcomings if you can add value to their lives in meaningful ways.

Overcome Obstacles. Development of a mid-career blood phobia would have ended the professional life of most physicians, but Doc Martin simply shifted gears – moving from surgery to general practice. When he’s confronted with blood in his new role, Doc Martin pukes in a paper bag and addresses the medical crisis at hand without skipping a beat. Doc Martin is a dauntless spirit whose determination was shaped by a mother who did not want him and a father who had no time for him. “When life gives you lemons…make lemonade” is a cliché, but its underlying lesson helps to maintain one’s sanity in a world we often can’t control.

Set Clear Expectations. Although Doc Martin is not always effective in enforcement of his own rules, there’s never any question about what he expects from people. His receptionists (three of them, so far) understand what behavior he’s seeking and what will not be tolerated, which includes not serving hot tea to patients in the waiting room. Whether you’re managing an office staff, raising children (or lining up your putt on the 16th hole), it’s important to have a clear vision of the outcome you’re seeking, and to be very specific with people regarding how they can help you achieve it.

Find an Meaningful Outlet. Doc Martin is wound as tight as a clock, so perhaps the show’s creators intend for his hobby of clock repair to serve as a metaphor for self-examination.  Either way, it’s important to have an outlet for relaxation, expression or personal satisfaction; whether that activity be physical or intellectual, which is increasingly difficult in a world consisting of so many passive distractions…such as watching Doc Martin re-runs.

In advance of Season 6’s final 8 episodes, diehard Doc Martin fans can follow the latest series-related news and gossip on its official website / blog www.docmartinfan.com . In the meantime, readers of this blog post are invited to share a life lesson or two that they’ve learned from Doc Martin.

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The Herb Schmertz Era: When Public Relations Had Some Balls

The recent passing of Rawleigh Warner, Jr., former Chairman and CEO of Mobil Oil Corp., brings to mind what many consider to be a golden age for Public Relations: the period from the mid-60s to mid-80s, when the PR profession had the mandate, the skills and the balls to stand up to criticism leveled against the organizations and people they represented.

The tip of Mobil’s public relations spear was guided by Herb Schmertz, who served as Vice President of Public Affairs under Warner (and whose credentials included a law degree from Columbia.) During Warner’s tenure, Mobil operated at ground zero of the 1970’s energy crisis, and was a primary target of the American public’s frustration over the availability and price of oil. For more than a decade, Mobil remained in the media’s crosshairs and often served as the corporate poster child for greed and unbridled capitalism.

Herb Schmertz countered public criticism against Mobil with hardball PR tactics, under the pretense that if companies don’t pro-actively participate in pertinent discussions, they deserve what they get, in terms of reputation. Under his regime of “creative confrontation,” Schmertz applied a number of innovative and controversial tactics including:

  • Introduction of modern-day advocacy advertising, or “advertorials,” which first appeared on the OpEd page of the New York Times in 1970. Mobil’s weekly commentaries, which Schmertz called “the honorable act of pamphleteering,” covered a broad range of energy related topics – the environment, oil reserves, taxation, regulation – and also took on detractors. The Mobil advertorials eventually were published weekly in several leading daily newspapers over the course of three decades, and serve as the template for what the PR profession now calls thought leadership.
  • Corporate underwriting of artistic endeavors unrelated to Mobil’s core issues, including sponsorship of the PBS television series, Masterpiece Theatre. Herb Schmertz called this “affinity-of-purpose marketing,” where audiences associate successful ventures with the companies that sponsor them.
  • Slash and burn public relations, where all communication is shut down with a media source considered to be biased or not acting in good faith. Notably, in 1984 Mobil boycotted the Wall Street Journal – refusing to provide the nation’s premier business publication with any information, to respond to its reporters, or to advertise – following what Schmertz considered to be history of inaccurate and biased reporting on Mobil. Although this over-the-top tactic was and is considered childish by many PR and media executives, it made a strong statement to the public and Wall Street Journal editors as well.

Herb Schmertz was no reckless PR cowboy. His communications philosophy was well-grounded in democratic principles, and his tactics well-reasoned and effective. In this 2-minute YouTube clip, Schmertz (who is now 83 years-old) eloquently describes how Mobil’s confrontational and sometimes abrasive public relations strategy reflected the company’s obligation, as a custodian of significant physical, human and economic resources, to maintain its role as one of the pillars of a free society.

In contrast to Schmertz-era brand management, most current PR practitioners are hamstrung by corporate legal counsel, who advocate non-confrontational PR strategies, advising CEOs to simply hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.  This enduring one-sided focus on the aversion of legal risk not only has precluded many organizations from opportunities to manage their brand reputation effectively, but has also emasculated the Public Relations profession in the process.

As the PR profession’s role is increasingly relegated to management of Tweets, Likes and unread press releases, as its practitioners continue to lose their seat at the senior management table, and as the long tail of online content extracts a heavy price for avoiding legitimate and timely confrontation, PR professionals will likely wonder why their role as architect and defender of the company’s reputation no longer belongs to them.

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