A 9-Step Marketing Success Recipe

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The first question we ask prospective clients is, “Do you have a Marketing Plan?”

Many prospects sheepishly acknowledge that they don’t have a formal Marketing Plan. This group earns big points with us for honesty.

Some less forthright prospects will claim that they have a Marketing Plan, but when asked to show it to us, this group responds with, “Our plan isn’t written down,” or “It’s being updated,” which really means that they don’t have a Marketing Plan.

There are several good and bad reasons why companies (of all sizes) don’t create a Marketing Plan. Those spoken and unspoken reasons include:

·     “It’s too much work to create and maintain a Marketing Plan.”

·     “We had a Marketing Plan once, and it just sat in a 3-ring binder on the shelf.”

·     “Senior management doesn’t understand marketing. Why confuse them more?”

·     “It’s easier to just keep trying different marketing tactics, to see what works.”

After decades of watching companies either earnestly struggle to create a Marketing Plan, or strenuously avoid creating one, we recently had an epiphany. We realized that most companies should SKIP the Marketing Plan altogether.

Here’s why: The ratio of companies without (versus with) a Marketing Plan will never change. So rather than badgering and shaming the “No Marketing Plan” companies, we should help them focus exclusively on the critical components of marketing that will help them succeed. We call this process the “9 Step Marketing Success Recipe.”

In Betty Crocker fashion, here is a step-by-step recipe for achieving marketing success for your company…completely devoid of all marketing jargon:

Three Strategic Ingredients

Step 1: Determine why customers should buy your product / service. This seemingly simple goal – to understand what’s special about your company – is the most essential element of marketing strategy. Many companies either don’t have a clue, or have an unfounded / unrealistic viewpoint on why people should do business with them. You need to nail this step…because it provides your company with its sales pitch.

Step 2: Learn why customers are buying from your competitors. To gain a reliable answer to the Step 1 question, you need to possess a thorough understanding of the competitive landscape. The most successful marketers know everything about (and closely monitor) current competitors, to gain insight into why customers buy from them. They also work to anticipate new competitors, and explore potential customer solutions that could disrupt the entire category.

Step 3: Learn what your customers want and don’t want. If you’re not having a continuous, two-way conversation with current, prospective and former customers, then you are flying by the seat of your pants, marketing-wise. And you can’t rely exclusively on surveys to gain that market intelligence. Pick up the phone and talk to decision-makers at least once a quarter to really understand what they think and what they need.

Three Practical Ingredients

Step 1: Define what your marketing resources are. Marketing requires money and people. Work backwards to build a marketing strategy. First decide what resources are available to invest, and then determine what strategies / tactics you can afford to apply properly and consistently. Having an “open budget” for marketing makes you a target for the latest gimmick, and is a sure way to waste a boatload of money.

Step 2: Put your sales process under the microscope. Marketing is not a religion. To justify its existence as a corporate function, marketing must help produce tangible business outcomes. Most marketing activity should be related to sales…and the sales function requires close scrutiny in advance of any marketing investment. If your sales process is broken (or non-existent), then your marketing will likely yield nothing of value.

          Step 3: Define exactly what you want your marketing to achieve. Your marketing goals should be directly or indirectly connected to activity that drives revenue. If that revenue connection is fuzzy, or based largely on wishful thinking, then either refine or eliminate the weak strategies and tactics. Be ruthless in your evaluation of all marketing activity at all times.

Three Tactical Ingredients

Step 1: Select ONE effective direct marketing tactic. Most email solicitations go unread, with good reason: they are self-serving, poorly written and lack a compelling rationale for people to respond. But because the email marketing bar is so low, there is plenty of opportunity to stand out from the crowd. There’s also a big opportunity to leverage traditional snail mail, largely because marketers have abandoned that channel in lemming-like fashion.

Step 2: Select ONE smart content marketing tactic. The objective is to showcase your company’s intellectual capital (which is very different from a sales pitch), either through respected print / electronic media sources or social media, primarily to gain online visibility for that content. The marketing reality is this: If potential clients can’t find you by searching online, then you are not in the game. If you prefer to stick with the “We’re a relationship business, and don’t need an online brand presence.” marketing approach, then please let me know. I would like to short your stock.

Step 3: Select ONE consistent tactic to keep in touch with clients, prospects and referral sources. With so much media noise and competition, and because you can never know when people will be ready to engage, it’s important to remind decision-makers that your company is ready to help them. Quarterly communication is sufficient, and will avoid being viewed as a pest. Standard “all about us” newsletters are boring, so provide content that’s meaningful and of interest to your readers.

This overly simplistic, 9-step planning process is unlikely to gain the endorsement of the American Marketing Association. But for the vast majority of businesses who don’t have the time or interest to create a bona fide Marketing Plan, this “9 Step Marketing Success Recipe” should more than suffice.

Compared with some of the overly ambitious, non-productive Marketing Plans that we’ve seen over the years, it’s also likely to produce a much tastier outcome.

Bon Appetit!

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Two Reasons Why Marketing Fails at Small and Medium B2B Firms

failure-arrowsThere are two reasons why marketing fails most often at small- and medium-sized B2B firms. Either or both of these failings may apply to your situation:

You view marketing as business triage. Your company uses a collection of tactics (often labeled as a “marketing campaign”) only in response to a problem; typically involving the loss of a key client, or decline in revenue. When business is good, little or no time is invested in marketing. When business (inevitably) takes a dip, only then does marketing becomes a priority.

You expect marketing to deliver immediate results. Either because your company always views marketing on a “cause & effect” tactical basis, or because marketing triage must be applied quickly to revive an ailing company, the marketing function is given insufficient time to produce tangible results. It’s no surprise that marketing professionals have the shortest tenure of any corporate function in the asset management business.

The hard truth is that very few B2B business owners either understand the marketing function, or have the discipline to design, implement, measure and adhere to a consistent marketing approach that builds brand equity and market engagement over a sustained period.

To establish the infrastructure and internal culture necessary for the marketing discipline to succeed, we offer the following simple strategy:

  • Create a Written Marketing Plan. This need not be in a 3-inch binder; a two-page document is often sufficient. Include goals, strategies, responsibilities, timelines, budgets and ways to measure results. Without a Marketing Plan you’ll waste lots of time and money. And unless it’s a written document, you won’t have commitment or accountability.
  • Gain Senior Level Commitment. The honcho in corner office (which might be you) must understand, endorse and support the Marketing Plan. This involves more than lip service. If your Plan isn’t properly staffed and funded at the outset, there’s no real commitment to marketing.
  • Do a Few Things Very Well. Your marketing success will be based on the quality and effectiveness of a limited number of strategies / tactics. Firms sometimes go overboard, thinking there’s a correlation between the size of its marketing investment and business results. But less can often be more, in terms of marketing ROI.
  • Build and Nurture your Database. Direct and easy access to your company’s clients, prospects, referral sources and opinion leaders is essential. Without an email pipeline, the marketing value of the content you create is close to zero. If your firm’s thought leadership simply sits on its website or social media, you’re missing the opportunity to build relationships with your target audiences.
  • Create Meaningful Content. Self-serving, long-winded white papers and research reports have very limited appeal. Generate content that validates your company’s intellectual capital, that’s easy to read, and focuses on timely topics that people have a genuine interest in. These topics do not include how great your firm is. Allow people to draw their own conclusions.
  • Drive Top-of-Mind Awareness. To be included on the short list of candidates for an assignment or sale, you need to build awareness with key decision-makers. To accomplish that goal, share your content directly with target audiences on a quarterly basis. (More frequently than that, and you may be viewed as a pest.)

Most importantly – with apologies to Glengarry Glen Ross – B2B firms must commit to:

A…..Always

B…..Be

M….Marketing

…for the discipline to be effective. Otherwise, the traditional short-term, hair-on-fire approach to business development will keep your company from ever reaching its full potential, regardless of its quality or reputation.

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PR’s “Big Lie” is Alive and Well

whack a moleNearly 5 years ago, I wrote a LinkedIn blog post (The PR Industry’s Dirty Little Secret) that called out PR practitioners who use their “close relationships” with journalists – along with the implication that those relationships will generate media coverage – to sell their services to prospective clients.

The “Big Lie” in this sales pitch is that no journalist will ever cover a topic because they know your PR rep.  Further, any PR rep who pitches stories to journalists based relationships is unlikely to have those relationships for very long.

I had not run into the Big Lie for some time, and believed it had become a remnant of old school PR; that clients had finally caught on, and were showing the door to PR practitioners who claimed their media relationships are for sale.

But in Whack-a-Mole fashion, the Big Lie popped up again last week in a discussion with a prospective client, which went like this:

Prospect:        Do you have relationships with influential reporters that can help us get coverage?

Me:                 I’ve worked with lots of reporters, but I would never pitch them a story simply because they know me.

Prospect:        What do you mean?

Me:                 I would only pitch a reporter if I had a story that was worthy of their consideration. That’s my value proposition. I know what journalists want, and I know how to present it to them in a way that increases the likelihood that they will be interested.

Prospect:        But if they already know you, won’t that help our chances of getting the story published?

Me:                 Not necessarily. Have you worked with a PR firm before?

Prospect:        Yes. And I hired them because they had strong media contacts.

Me:                 How well did they perform?

Prospect:        I got absolutely nothing from them. That’s why I’m talking to you.

So apparently…the Big Lie is alive and well in PR Land. And companies are still being played.

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Write Effective Pitch Letters to Grow Your Business

mailbox-planet-mailbox-rentalsOver the past 20 years, most of my firm’s new business has been generated by unsolicited pitch letters sent to targeted prospects. These brief, tailored messages – sent either by email or snail mail – have not only enabled us to maintain a consistent pipeline of clients; but more importantly, we’ve built a practice consisting of high-value companies and people that we wanted to work for. And we’ve never resorted to advertising, sponsorships or other expensive, low-yielding tactics to promote our brand or services.

The simple truth is that properly researched, well-crafted pitch letters are probably the most effective way for any type of professional services firm to build its client base and grow revenue. Unsolicited pitch letters, when they succeed, can also be an extremely effective way for your firm to avoid the RFP process…by anticipating their needs, you enable the targeted company to skip the beauty contest altogether.

Here are 5 of the many lessons that we’ve learned about how to use this powerful marketing tactic properly:

The Secret Sauce is NOT the Pitch Letter. For every pitch letter we send out, my firm invests at least an hour or two researching the target company. We review all of the target’ s public facing information to understand its value proposition, competitive landscape, leadership, reputation, marketing & sales sophistication and apparent resources. Our research goal is to identify either a specific problem or an opportunity where we think we can add value. Lacking this insight, you have no tangible basis for an effective pitch letter.

Your Pitch Letter Must be About Them, Not You. Your targeted decision-makers receive scores of pitch letters and phone solicitations from your competitors. Nearly all of those firms will mistakenly talk about themselves, and what they’ve done for their clients. But the only thing that’s of interest to prospects is what you can do for them. So you need to first let prospects know that you understand their problem / opportunity (because you’ve done proper research), and then offer to share your ideas on that topic. (Yes…you’ll need to have some ideas to offer.)

Grabbing Their Attention is Goal #1. Using email, your pitch letter will not be read unless you incent the target to open it. This is no easy task, given the volume of email most decision-makers receive every day. Your subject line should be serious, rather than cute or clever, and should generate some curiosity. Also try to mention the name of the target company in your subject line, so that it’s not discounted as a canned letter or mass mailing. You should also consider mailing a hard copy pitch letter, in addition to, or in lieu of an email pitch. These days, a hard copy letter is more likely to be noticed than an email.

Stop Selling and Start Listening. The only goal of your pitch letter is to start a conversation, ideally face-to-face. This is your opportunity to discuss the target’s issues and your ideas. Sometimes you’ll miss the mark, sometimes you will nail it, and sometimes they’ll have a need or problem that’s unrelated to the one you’ve identified. If you ask smart questions, take notes, and focus on understanding their business and personal circumstances (instead of seeking to walk out with a signed contract), you’ll establish the foundation for a relationship that might lead to revenue at some point.

View Selling as a Numbers Game. Timing is every in life, including business development. You can research a great target, identify their problem or opportunity, and be in a position to add value, but for 100 different reasons (unrelated to you or your pitch), the prospect is not willing, able or ready to engage you. So the only way you can address the random nature of sales is to increase the number of doors that you knock on. If you’re serious about leveraging the power of pitch letters, you’ll need to send them out on a consistent, disciplined basis. Think of your program simply as a long-term seed-sewing process, and shoot to send out 2-3 well researched pitch letters every week. Over time, you’ll see tangible results.

There are many more tactical aspects involved in the art of pitch letters – what content to include and avoid, which individual to solicit, what attachments to include, how to monitor and follow-up, etc. – to cover in a single blog post. But simply getting started, and establishing a pitch letter routine are the two most critical steps.

What’s presented here, combined with overcoming a fear of failure, is all you’ll need to get started on the path to building your business through pitch letters. Happy hunting.

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Is Your Client Newsletter a Marketing Albatross?

albatrossClient newsletters are the most widely used, often abused and hotly debated 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 B2B Firm Needs a Client Newsletter

Marketers want you to believe that your firm needs a 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. 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. It 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 them. 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 people 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, 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 services 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 often 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 also falls 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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Make the Short List…Or Die Trying

accept_reject july 8 2012

For most B2B companies, there’s no reliable way to predict when a prospective client will purchase their product or engage their services, regardless of what their “marketing automation” expert promises.

This is particularly challenging for professional services firms – legal, accounting, investment advisory, technology, management consulting, recruiting or marketing – where top-of-mind awareness (getting people to remember you) is a critical part of business development.

Firms that have made an investment in establishing meaningful initial contact with prospective clients – notably through face-to-face interaction – will often make one of three errors:

Inconsistent / No Follow-up: These companies might send a “Enjoyed meeting you” email, and / or connect on LinkedIn, but will not establish a method for consistent and relevant contact with prospects.

Inappropriate Follow-up: These companies will send the firm’s standard “package” of sales and marketing materials, and then plug prospects into a mailing list to receive whatever information the marketing department generates…regardless of its relevance to a prospect’s specific needs.

Excessive Follow-up: These companies subject prospects to a constant barrage of email, direct mail and telephone contact that makes their firm appear desperate for work, and often kills any chance of their being hired.

The effort to generate top-of-mind awareness is a means to an end, not the goal. The business objective is to earn a position on the “short list” of 3 or 4 qualified firms that are called in by a prospect as a candidate for selection. (Or ideally, as the only firm under consideration.) If you’re not on the short list, you’re not in the game.

Making a Prospective Client’s Short List

B2B firms that are most successful in consistently making the short list apply the following disciplines:

  • STRONG CRM — Effective database management is essential for firms that are serious about communicating with clients, prospects and referral sources. Overlooking or taking shortcuts in what admittedly is a tedious task will submarine any effort to build top-of-mind awareness. Senior management must make CRM discipline a priority.
  • PROCESS CONSISTENCY— B2B firms often start out with the best intentions to communicate regularly with target audiences, but lose momentum for two reasons: they’ve not assigned adequate resources, or they are not truly committed to the program. To succeed, firms must communicate with target audiences at least on a quarterly basis, and that contact should not be postponed, skipped or stopped. Consistent application is critical.
  • RELEVANT CONTENT — Some firms do a great job on CRM and contact consistency, and then hurt their brand by pushing content that’s overly self-serving or of little interest to their targets. Canned newsletters, boring white papers or news items announcing the firm’s new senior partner or service offering do not drive interest or top-of-mind awareness. Content based on intellectual capital, showcasing insight, experience and opinion, and providing helpful ideas or guidance, will be read and remembered.
  • PATIENCE — In golf, the best putters are those who envision the path of the ball to the hole, and then commit to that line. They believe their putt will drop. Firms that succeed in making the short list believe that consistent, intelligent contact with target audiences will yield results. They also have the patience to wait for what sometimes can be a very long putt to drop.

Your firm’s chances of making the short list on a consistent basis will be driven by its ability to drive purposeful top-of-mind awareness among existing clients, prospects and referral sources. That function should be the marketing department’s #1 goal, and their performance metric should be the firm’s short-list engagement.

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Sales and Marketing Alignment: Facing Professional Culture Clash

quote-i-don-t-like-that-man-i-must-get-to-know-him-better-abraham-lincoln-17-61-18The most recent survey of Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) shows that not much has changed over the past 10 years. CMOs continue their struggle to make the connection between marketing activity and company performance, and they continue to shift the blame for their failure.

Despite the fact that financial results are rated as the most important factor in a CMO’s performance-based compensation, executive recruitment firm Korn Ferry’s CMO survey found that the majority of senior marketers claim they cannot make a direct correlation between their efforts and company performance.

The reason CMOs give for the disconnect? Nearly a third of the survey respondents suggest that their CEO “doesn’t understand the CMO role.” Specifically, they feel their boss fails to understand the complexity of brand building; the importance of a customer-centric approach; and the correlation between marketing and revenue generation.

Averaging job tenure of just 4.1 years – the shortest of all C-suite positions – CMOs are unlikely to win either sympathy or contract renewals from CEOs (with average tenure of 8 years), who are increasingly impatient with CMOs’ lack of results and accountability.

Tactics and Tools Fail CMOs

An oversimplified description of the CMO’s role is to promote the brand, and to generate viable leads for the sales team. To accomplish those necessary goals, and create some tangible evidence of their contribution to their company’s top line results, CMOs continue to rely heavily (or exclusively) on a large and growing inventory of marketing tactics and tools.

In addition to traditional methods such as advertising (a/k/a “paid media”) and public relations (a/k/a “earned media”), the marketing tool kit now includes everything from Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) programs and Marketing Automation software, to Account-Based Marketing (ABM), which is the latest shiny object promising to deliver ROI Nirvana to CMOs.

Unfortunately, as the complexity of the tools and tactics increases, they become more difficult for CMOs to manage (and explain), and more likely that their CEOs will believe that marketing is disconnected from what they believe is most important…which is revenue generation.

Attitude Adjustment Required

If the most measurable portion of the CMO’s role is lead generation; if the sales force is an essential asset to convert those leads into clients or revenue; and if clients and revenue are what’s used to determine CMO compensation and tenure…then why does “marketing / sales alignment” continue to be a significant challenge for most companies?

The simple answer is that there is a longstanding culture clash between marketing and sales professionals. Sales reps believe that marketers are disconnected from customers and marketplace realities, never get their hands dirty, and provide them with leads that are worthless. Marketers believe that sales reps are self-interested, don’t understand the company’s strategy, and waste the leads and tools they are given.

In this ongoing tug-of-war, marketers will always stand to lose, because revenue trumps branding in the corner office, and because sales reps can more easily claim direct responsibility for revenue generation.

Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, studies people and teams seeking to make a positive difference through the work that they do. Her research suggests that fixing this marketing and sales professional culture clash starts with an attitude adjustment, and requires a new way of working together.

Lessons from a Chilean Coal Mine  

At a recent TED conference, Professor Edmondson explained the concept of “teaming,” where people come together to solve new, urgent or unusual problems. Recalling stories of teamwork on the fly, such as the incredible rescue of 33 miners trapped half a mile underground in Chile in 2010, Edmondson shares the elements needed to turn a group of strangers into a quick-thinking team that can nimbly respond to challenges. At many companies, sales and marketing teams are strangers to each other.

Here are three key points from Professor Edmondson’s TED presentation (well worth 13 minutes to view) that CMOs should consider in any serious effort to work effectively with sales professionals:

  • It’s difficult to learn if you believe that you already know the solution to a challenge or opportunity. Situational humility – simply acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers – is a necessary starting point for effective teamwork.
  • We need to be genuinely curious about what others think and bring to the table. The key to success in building an effective team is learning the strengths of others, and conveying what you can contribute to the effort.
  • Society has conditioned us to view each other as competitors. To wit: for me to succeed, you must fail. This underlying cultural bias needs to be eliminated, in order for sales and marketing teams to work together effectively.

There are no simple solutions to the challenge of marketing and sales alignment. But it’s more likely to be improved within a company by focusing on the hard work of listening and communicating, as Professor Edmondson suggests. CMOs need to begin that journey by looking inside themselves, and not to outside providers of marketing technologies.

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How PR Firms Promote False Credibility

travelling_snake_oil_salesman

Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig recently called out “marketing services specialist” Clint Arthur for selling speaking opportunities at the Harvard Faculty Club and the West Point Club, as a means for his paying clients to leverage the credibility associated with those two respected institutions.

As Zweig’s article points out, however, the schools neither sponsored those events, nor endorsed the program in any way. Apparently, Zweig’s article hasn’t deterred Mr. Arthur from hijacking brand endorsements, as he continues to promote this service (and many others) on his LinkedIn profile and his websites, including the “Status Factory.”

Clint Arthur may represent the extreme end of PR hucksterism, but for decades many well-known public relations firms have sold other types of false or inflated credibility that relies on the implied third-party endorsement of respected media sources and organizations. (In some cases, those respected brands are complicit in selling their brand stature.)

Here’s one example of how the credibility game is played:

At considerable expense, a PR firm will earn their client a spot as a Subject Matter Expert (SME) on a respected journalist’s list of sources, which may eventually yield a relevant quote in a published story. Although that story will often contain quotes from other SMEs, including the client’s competitors – making the coverage useless from a sales and marketing perspective – the PR firm will hype this “earned media placement” in several ways, including:

  • A press release announcing that the client has been FEATURED in ForbesFortuneCNBC, the Wall Street Journal, etc.;
  • Social media postings on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook referencing the publicity;
  • A permanent “As seen in (name of media source)” banner on the home page of the client’s website;
  • Surgical removal of the client’s quote from the story, coupled with the publication’s logo, hung like a hunting trophy in the client website’s News section.

All of these tactics are intended to suggest that the client is a safe choice, simply because they’ve been mentioned in a respected media source. And all of these tactics overplay their hand, with respect to the public’s trust in legitimate media.

There are certainly many PR firms that help clients to generate earned media coverage based on bona fide thought leadership and subject matter expertise. High quality content is entitled to the full measure of direct and indirect promotion, to ensure that a client’s intellectual capital (as well as its media “endorsements”) are known to target audiences.

Where the PR industry has fallen short, however, and where the offending “media shops” continue to damage the reputation of the profession (with clients and journalists), is the attempt to claim credibility when it has not really been earned. In that regard, they deserve no more respect than that given to Clint Arthur.

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Preserving Brand Equity in a Corporate Turnaround

brand equityWith rare exception, companies assign very little planning or resources to proactively managing the effects of a restructuring on its brand equity. While financial and legal considerations will always be the primary focus, a tangible sophistication gap has long existed between workout arrangement skills, compared with what’s required to preserve a company’s goodwill among internal and external audiences during a corporate restructuring.

Brand communication is considered a fuzzy management science by many legal and financial professionals and can be discounted by the C-suite as well. However, in our digital age, rumor and misinformation can incur permanent damage to a company’s reputation with lightning speed. A communications strategy largely consisting of press releases or cryptic statements from management falls far short of what is required to protect an enterprise’s most valuable asset — its brand.

Why Brand Equity Matters

A brand is the promise a company makes to its customers. Brands help customers understand what a company knows, what it stands for, what it will deliver and why they should trust it. Brands involve far more than a firm’s name, logo or website. Simply put, marketing is what a company does to promote its brand. Brand equity is what people believe the company is.

Marketing academics and practitioners promote plenty of convoluted definitions of brand equity. For the sake of this discussion, brand equity is best defined as the sum total of market perceptions, customer loyalty and employee engagement. If those three factors drive a company’s revenue, then building and protecting brand equity must be a strategic priority, particularly when the enterprise undergoes any change or event that may negatively influence those factors.

Brand equity has always mattered to companies. What has changed over the past decade, primarily as a result of the internet, is a company’s loss of control over information related to its brand and the democratization of influence. A company’s senior management and traditional media sources no longer have exclusive or primary control over brand equity. Anyone with Facebook, a Twitter account or a blog — including employees, customers, competitors, short sellers or dedicated troublemakers — can erode (or bolster) brand perceptions. Restructurings provide perfect opportunities for those opinions to be heard and considered.

Preparing A Game Plan

During a restructuring, it is critical that preserving a company’s brand receives the same level of attention by senior management as financial and legal considerations.

Anything short of that commitment can signal to employees, customers, business partners and other key stakeholders that their interests and concerns will take a back seat to the personal agendas of the corporate owners. Post restructuring, the rebuilding of trust and confidence with audiences that shape a company’s brand equity is far more difficult (and expensive) to achieve, because negative and incorrect facts and opinions have online visibility that can last for many years. As the classic FRAM oil filter commercial suggested: “You can pay me now…or you can pay me (much more) later.”

With an upfront commitment in place, most of the heavy lifting in creating a game plan to protect a company’s brand equity in a restructuring is front-loaded: strategic planning, delegation of responsibilities and a sense of urgency are the critical success factors.

Here are some primary considerations in preparing and implementing a game plan:

Treat Restructuring as Crisis Communication

In terms of its potential to inflict long-term damage to brand equity, a restructuring can be as significant as a product safety recall or financial fraud. Most audiences won’t understand the purpose or logistics of the transaction. Many will assume restructuring is simply a tactic to enrich senior management. The overall impression will be that the company is in trouble or going out of business. Don’t underestimate the significance of the turnaround or the sense of urgency that’s required to communicate properly with key audiences on a real-time basis.

Refine the Core Messaging

How well and how consistently the company explains what’s happening and what’s likely to occur will have the greatest impact on how audiences respond. It is critical to provide an accurate, clear and concise description of the reasons for the transition and provide insight into the company’s plans and expectations. It is critical to express empathy for those affected, especially for those who have lost their jobs. Internal pressure from legal advisors to say very little about the restructuring or to communicate in legalese often requires pushback from management.

Tailor Core Messaging for Each Audience

There is no “one size fits all” strategy when communicating a restructuring event to diverse internal and external audiences. Because employees, customers and business partners all have very different motivations and concerns, the company’s core messaging must be tailored to address the “what’s in this for me?” factors relevant to each target audience. The substance of the messaging remains the same. The tone and details will change relating to areas of greatest concern for each audience.

Select & Manage Communication Channels

Tailored communications are of little value if they are not delivered to the intended audiences through an appropriate channel. Employees, for example, will respond more positively to email, and face-to-face (or televised) meetings/town halls, than they will to statements posted on the company’s website or intranet. Communication with business partners may best be managed through personal phone calls from their company contact. Ideally, establish dedicated channels (an internal microsite, for example), and do not mix restructuring-related information with normal course business communication. In all cases, the most damaging scenarios occur when an important audience receives restructuring information from a third party or indirect source — the news media or on social media — before hearing it directly from the company.

Apply Listening Tools & Respond Immediately

Several online tools, with capabilities far beyond GoogleAlerts, can provide real-time insights into where a company is being mentioned and what’s being said. This window into market sentiment is a necessity during a restructuring, but it will be of tangible value only if a company has the capability to respond immediately and appropriately to rumors and misinformation. Keep in mind that each social media channel has its own protocol and culture and requires specific skills to communicate effectively. If a company lacks channel-specific expertise in social media, engaging outside help is essential.

Centralize All Communications

With lots of moving parts — multiple audiences, tailored communications, different online and direct channels — the potential for inconsistent messaging and inaccurate information is very high. To manage those risks, establish a very simple and strict protocol with respect to how and when transaction-related communication is managed. The game plan should include individuals covering multiple disciplines. A single individual should be responsible for implementation and keeping the team informed of progress and problems at all times.

Start & End With Employee Communication

Employees have a personal stake in the company’s future and a direct influence on customer satisfaction and loyalty. At all times, depending on how they are treated, employees can serve as strong brand ambassadors or insidious brand terrorists. Because a restructuring strategy’s success will rely, in some measure, on their cooperation and support, a communication plan should be heavily weighted in tactics designed to keep them informed and to give them a voice in the process.

Anticipate Unpleasant Surprises

Plans designed to protect brand equity during a restructuring rarely follow the script. Part of the initial planning process should include a whiteboard session to address all the possible “what if” scenarios, ranging from union problems to negative media coverage to legal or regulatory problems. It’s unrealistic and unproductive to create detailed communications strategies for all of these potential issues, but considering them in advance enables identification of their early signs and a quicker response should they occur.

Despite the negative connotations, restructuring can serve as an opportunity for a company to demonstrate its true character and to build respect and loyalty from existing and new audiences. If, as Hemingway suggested, “Courage is grace under pressure,” then a company’s behavior during a restructuring — in terms of what it says, how well it manages the process and how it backs up promises — can significantly strengthen its brand equity.

To accomplish this goal, advance planning is more critical than good intentions. A company of any size, without a deep bench of internal talent, and lacking specialized communications experience, can preserve the brand equity it has worked so hard to establish. That effort starts and ends with a commitment to transparency and an acknowledgement that brand equity is a very fragile asset.

Note: This article was published in the November / December 2017 edition of ABF Journal, found here: ABF Journal Nov/Dec 2017

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Why Your Company’s Blog Doesn’t Make the Phone Ring

old-phone-1412853453JkLAll of the hours devoted to blogging, at some of the nation’s largest and smartest companies, does not appear to be time well spent…if the goal of a blog and other forms of content marketing is to generate new business.

If there’s a disconnect between your firm’s blogging and new clients related to your content, here are 8 possible reasons why:

Your topics are boring.

Avoid topics that have been (or are likely to be) covered by other firms, or topics that may be considered old news by the time your post is published. Select blog topics that are of immediate or continuing interest to your target audiences, and cover them in a unique manner.

Your headlines don’t grab attention.

With a few seconds to grab a potential reader’s attention, headlines are the most critical element of a blog post. Invest the time necessary to write a snappy headline that addresses the “What’s in this for me?” question.

Your posts are too long.

You’re competing for eyeballs and attention against all types of online and offline content, as well as everyday distractions. You need to state your case in fewer than 750 words. Fewer than 500 words is even better. Make your point, and leave them wanting more.

You don’t provide an interesting point of view.

People read blog posts to gain insights and opinions. If you’re simply presenting facts, your posts are probably a snooze-fest. The potential for you to make your blog a marketing device lies in your ability to present provocative, unique or contrarian viewpoints. Strive to be a thought leader; not a news service.

You have no blogging strategy.

If you’re selecting blog post topics on a random or opportunistic basis, then you’re lost in Tactic Land. Create a simple editorial plan that identifies key blog topics related to your firm’s value proposition (why people should hire you), and integrate those topics into a content production calendar to ensure that you cover those topics over 6 months or a year.

You don’t blog consistently.

A blog’s marketing function is to drive top-of-mind awareness with your clients, prospects and referral sources. If you are not generating original content with some regularity, probably at least once a month, then don’t bother blogging at all. In fact, if your last blog post is more than 2 or 3 months old, it’s a brand liability.

You don’t merchandize your blog content.

Another way to increase readership of your blog is by re-purposing its content, in whole or part, in places where it’s likely to be seen. For starters, they should be published on LinkedIn, both on your personal profile (as a long-form blog post like this one), and as an “Update” on your firm’s corporate LinkedIn page. Posting it on Twitter makes sense only if you (or your firm) have a reasonable number of Twitter followers. If your content is interesting and not self-serving, you can also look for opportunities to have it published in an industry blog, or convert it into a bylined article for a relevant trade or business magazine.

You don’t drive traffic to your blog.

Unlike “Field of Dreams,” simply having a blog does not guarantee that any readers (particularly potential clients) will ever benefit from your intellectual capital. You need to promote your blog posts, individually and collectively. As a first step, every quarter send your database of contacts (hopefully you have this) a nicely designed email featuring 2 or 3 of your best recent blog posts, with an “In case you missed this” cover note.

If it’s done correctly, your blog can and will deliver a meaningful marketing ROI. In most cases, this means working smarter, and not necessarily harder, on your company’s blog.

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