Tag Archives: communications consultant

NOBODY CARES THAT YOU HAVE MOVED OFFICES

It’s bloody hard work selling stories to journalists.

People do it because journalists exude the all-important ‘third party validation’ that you can’t get through self-publishing or advertising.

You might not have done this before. Perhaps you usually get your PR agency to do it, or it just isn’t in your sphere of experience. But really, you should give it a go some time.

Here’s an idea:

They should put ‘pitching stories to journalists’ onto MBA courses.

It will teach our future captains of industry that success in this realm is only partly related to one’s charm, timing, relationships and salesmanship. Mostly – and you may need to sit down for this next bit – it’s to do with whether the story is any good.

Like I say – selling stories to journalists is bloody hard work. But it’s a damn sight easier when you actually have a story.

Here are 6 PR whimsies that should never be exposed to the scrutiny of a self-respecting journalist. Make them into blog posts (or else dispose of them entirely) so that no one need incur the counterproductive wrath of an important influencer whose time you wasted:

 

1) We’re moving offices

If you ever read an independently written article about a company that has moved offices, then it will most likely be because an armed gang is holding the journalist’s family to ransom. Or it’s a publication that nobody reads. Or isn’t a publication at all.

The moving offices story is a classic case of something mattering a great deal to an organisation but not to anyone else. It is the equivalent of being a bit worried about constipation for a few days, defecating prodigiously and then using this as an excuse to update your Facebook status.

 

2) Us and another company are doing something together that doesn’t involve a contract

Lots of customer win stories are pitched; only a few of them ever get covered. A massive deal, an industry-first or peculiar customers are all good ingredients. Stories can also result off the back of ‘channel deals’ where a manufacturer strikes an agreement to push its stock via a distributor or major retailer.

But this is none of these things. This is the so-called story that emerges when two companies find something broadly in common and decide not to be complete strangers anymore. This is ‘corporate strategic alignment’, ‘technological interoperability’ and ‘synergistic initiatives’. This is NOT a story.

 

3) Something we announced previously is now available to buy

A favourite of US-based companies, this is the classic GA (General Availability) press release. In other words, the communiqué marking the general availability of a product that has already been pre-announced, showcased, certified, awarded best in show at some obscure event in Kentucky, and officially released.

This is the kind of story that some salespeople insist upon in the deluded belief that it represents a ‘PR victory’ over a competitor who’s suffering the same problems getting their product ready for market too.

It says much about how powerful the sales department is in an organisation, and how much influence it has over the marketing function.

 

4) We’re going to be 20 years old next year

Sure, everything can have a birthday. Pets, cars, buildings, corporations… It’s the staunchly held right of the self-obsessed.

Actually, that isn’t fair. Preparing for a year of celebrations and themed events, giving each of your staff a special keepsake, releasing a special logo commemorating your ability to not go bust in two decades; all of these are bona fide marketing communications tactics. But it isn’t a story.

If you want to make a story out of your company’s special birthday then mark it with something more worthwhile like a ritual sacrifice, or by donating your annual profits to charity.

 

5) Our CEO will be speaking at Burpcon 2016

You may think that cooking this up as a PR story is a vanity exercise by the CEO, but most of the time it’s a well-meaning colleague performing a vanity exercise on their behalf.

I’ve been present on at least two occasions where the CEO has tried to block anyone bothering to make a story out of something like this, only to be talked round by a marketing/PR sycophant who believes it might ingratiate them a few inches further towards a promotion.

People present at conferences all the time. Sometimes 90 or 100 speakers will pack a multi-track, three-day show. This is not news. And in any case, the website of the event has got all this stuff listed on it already.

 

6) We’ve won an award at the Blah-Blah Industry Awards Night

Some industry awards are worth entering because there is real value in showing customers and prospects that your business or technology has been judged better than its peers.

But almost all industry awards are directly correlated with a specific publication.   Why does this matter? Well, imagine you are the person whose job it is to pitch this story. Who do you pitch it to? Well, you can’t pitch it to the publication that gave you the award, because they already know and are planning to write about it. And you can’t pitch it to any other publication because who the hell wants to write about the glittering awards ceremony hosted by a competitor?

The simple truth is that there is nobody to pitch this story to.

 

If you’re still wondering why The Sun never covers The Daily Mirror Pride of Britain awards, then I suggest you enrol onto the best MBA you can find and hope they’ve got a module on pitching stories to the press.

Oh, and wear a crash helmet when your turn comes.

‘PEAK FUD’ AND WHY BETTER ISN’T ENOUGH ANYMORE

Generating news, comment, opinion and sales bumff around technology has forever been predicated on the notion that anything featuring extra bells and whistles is a mark of progress.

But the “buy this new one cos it’s better” adage is unravelling. Having fed off the harvest of technology innovation for so long, it’s inevitable that we now start plunging down the slide of diminishing returns. More and more new technology will be for technology’s sake.

6th Gen vs. 4th Gen

I’ve happily used the same iPhone 4 for the last four years, and the intervening technological progress really isn’t worth it. My wife just ditched a stone-aged Blackberry and would have got an iPhone 4 too if anyone still sold them. So an iPhone 6S joined the family. My assessment thus far is: it’s basically the same phone as mine (cue screams of derision). Yeah. It is.

Apple’s communications machine always talks like the company is changing the world, but this is damned difficult when it doesn’t have much proof. You can see the effort it’s taking. The latest iPhone TV ad tries conspicuously hard to spell out the crucial differences in its latest generation, presumably because so few of them are self-evident. The idea that “everything has changed” is a bit of a stretch.

We’ve seen this before with toothbrushes; one of the most barren wastelands of innovation known to mankind. The poor wretches who market toothbrushes (let me remind you: plastic sticks with brushes on the end) must be lurching between states of terrifying panic and amphetamine-fuelled desperation. After all, these are the same class of marketers who list ‘Aqua’ as an ingredient in a pharmaceutical product, because ‘Water’ is too passé. They’ve found the only conceivable way to make up for toothbrushes’ inherent lack of innovation is to accentuate meaningless new mini-features to the level of near-parody. This nonsense is stunningly observed by Mitchell & Webb in this classic sketch from 2006.

Back to the real world, and the same complete and utter desperation is plain as day when you watch the latest Samsung phone ad about its three-sided display. There are two striking aspects about this advert:

  1. Unless you’re a phone geek, you have to watch the advert a few times to work out why the advert consists chiefly of a phone rotating very slowly while being shot from every angle (it’s to demonstrate that the display area actually goes down the sides a bit)
  2. It offers no practical applications for what the hell this capability is useful for

Is this the technological equivalent of ‘the science bit’ in cosmetics commercials? Or maybe it’s like the sultry, sexily lit glamour photo of luxury cars. Regardless, the phone-maker is so bereft of practical applications for their innovation; we’re invited to gaze longingly at it under the microscope. As if that’s enough.  And it isn’t…

But what if those are the only innovation cards you’ve been dealt, marketing hack!? Will you instead be tempted to turn to the tried and trusted tactic of FUD…?

Prepare for Peak FUD: Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt

Increasing numbers of technology products are sold on the back of FUD, because it so gracefully obscures the meaningful reasons for buying. You’ve heard of Peak Oil.  Well prepare for a steady escalation toward ‘Peak FUD’, where fickleness and negativity fill the vacuum created by gaps in innovation. But be careful with FUD-slinging, because:

  • It can make the FUD-slinger look foolish when the negativity is baseless
  • Communicating negativity on a prolonged basis can cast a shadow on your brand reputation
  • It shows a lack of confidence; that your product is low on innovation
  • People are rarely that stupid

Vauxhall has just introduced a new innovation, called OnStar, to its new cars. But I didn’t know any of that when I sat down to watch TV last night, and their new advert came on.

If you haven’t seen it before, play it up until 0:10.

The first thing that strikes you is that it’s been made in German, and dubbed into English. Bad start Vauxhall. Or should I call you… Opel, hmm?!

Audiences are already cynical when ads come onto their tellyboxes, but they reserve a special measure of contempt for dubbed ads. I for one prepare myself to scoff at whatever pretence they create.

But this isn’t the issue here. The issue is the message.

Straight away you’re compelled to associate with the guy and his car, not the spotty kid next door. The kid has come over to ask some questions and talk to you about the technological showstoppers that may be missing from your prized motor. By 0:10 I’m honestly, truthfully thinking the man is going to reply saying: “Aah shut up kid, I don’t care about any of that guff, I’m off for a spin” and then the ad will cut to him tearing up the autobahn, waving to his mates out the window as he passes through a few (German?) piazzas, before finishing up taking a lovely lady home with him and sticking two fingers up to the kid peering furtively though the curtains.

But no. Roll the clip on. It turns out that the kid is an agent of FUD. He’s cooler and smarter than you. Don’t you feel stupid that your car isn’t equipped with a load of technological gubbins (Vauxhall OnStar)?! OK so they offer the smallest scintilla of benefit; barely able to register any enhancement to your life, your driving experience or the pursuit of human advancement. But that’s not the issue. The issue is who you haven’t become. Look now (at 0:15) as a younger, hunkier, happier and more successful looking man emerges to get into his car; a car so apparently dripping with Vauxhall OnStar goodness that he’ll live a life that the other bloke wouldn’t dare to dream. Be like him or you – you loser – will be consigned a hapless Luddite who just drives his car places and phones people on his phone and lacks the imagination necessary to press buttons that bounce personal data off satellites. Surely, surely you want to be that better person?

Nah…

This is a warning to the marketers in the B2B technology industry. If innovation slows down then practical applications and benefits are going to be evermore granular and harder to find, but never more important.

Don’t resort to FUD. FUD means you’ve run out of ideas.

FUD makes you the irritating know-it-all in a car commercial.  Or worse – his toothbrush.

GIVE VERBOSITY A SNIFF

Next time you are on a plane, get the duty free brochure and marvel at the most florid and inflated copy you will find anywhere (outside one of my own blogs).

For me, anything will do when I really need something to read. I will avidly digest every advert inside a tube carriage, including terms and conditions at the bottom. I have been known to sit in a hotel room waiting for Mrs Dev to finish getting ready, reading the fire drill instructions and every single bottle in the toiletries bag. I think it’s because I associate with whoever wrote these things, and I’m looking for errors and tautologies so that I can mentally high-five my own razor intellect.

Very sad, I know.

Anyway – back to the duty free brochure. Pick a bottle of perfume or aftershave and read its 50-word stanza, which invariably goes a bit like this.

Verbosity by Shanelle

Confront the factory smog of your existence with the splendid tones of emmenthal, shagpile carpets and smoky bacon burps in this sanctimonious ode to aspiration. Embrace your passion and be heralded by angels of destiny on your journey to the neverworld of you, and the banishment of forgotten ages past.

On the face of it, this is complete bollocks. However, looking more closely you can see that this is in fact extremely expensive.

What is the intrinsic value of a bottle of perfume? A nice piece of mass-produced glass in an attractive box, containing an ethanol-based formula of synthetically manufactured scents. Being generous – and having done zero research into the matter – I’m saying that’s worth £2. In fact, £2 can’t be that inaccurate if counterfeit perfumes can be sold for a tenner by people prepared to go to prison for being caught.

Our bottle of Verbosity will cost you £45 for a small bottle, but a bargain £70 for one twice the size. That’s one hell of a margin. But we’ve forgotten all the marketing costs – and there are A LOT of marketing costs. Why? Because you can’t just rely on stupid people and rich people (and the golden combo: stupid rich people) to sit up and take notice. It needs a ‘story’ so that the hordes of temporarily distracted sane people will also engage.

This idea that people don’t just buy a product, they buy the story that goes along with the product, is absolutely fascinating. Fascinating because it requires intelligent people to be so bored and uninspired that a splurge of what we’ve scientifically established as “complete bollocks” will drive them towards making a purchase.

Our Verbosity description tells you absolutely zero about what’s in that bottle and 100% of legally permitted nonsense that the manufacturer has optimised to make you want to buy. OK, so you’ll have a squirt of it before you actually hand over your money, but by then the seed is planted.

Looking at the wider fashion industry – and specifically the premium end of the market – you find other examples of storytelling. As you might have already gathered, I’m not the sort of person who spends more than £100 on a pair of jeans. I think £100 is too far above the intrinsic value for a hardwearing garment intended to cover my lower half. I’ll go £60-70, which is pretty far above it too, but then the pair is still likely to be of far better quality, colour and cut than your Asda-esque garb. I buy this from a standard shopping centre outlet. My jeans have NO STORY.

If you want a story with your jeans, then check out Hiut Denim. Here’s a snappy bit of prose describing one of their product lines: Selvedge.

Selvedge is an investment. Ours is from Kuroki, the artisanal Japanese denim mill. Woven on a 1959 loom. 100% indigo dyed. Unwashed 14.5oz.

The key difference between this text and Verbosity is that Hiut’s is a succession of facts about the product. But aren’t they INTERESTING facts? You can’t help feeling “Oh my God, the jeans I’m about to buy were made on a 1959 loom from Japan, not some 2006 French junk” or “Whoa – 14.5oz – that is way cooler than any of that inauthentic 410 gram rubbish”. A little too pretentious for a Gap wearing tight arse (no pun intended) like me, but still very engaging indeed.

All of it builds a story, and it fits in wonderfully with the company’s website and its clubby little nuggets of information, hipster steampunk photography and general “vibe”. I dare say the actual products are lovingly and professionally produced, and that the people at Hiut believe in what they’re making a good deal more than the cynics at “Shanelle”.

The big question is – what can you learn from fashion marketing and communications that you can apply to a business-to-business environment? In my view, you learn almost nothing. B2B marketing needs personality, and DOES involve aspirations, but never in the realm of people’s personal aspirations for how they want to be perceived. Go large on this approach in a B2B environment and I’m sorry but you risk insulting your audience.

The story approach that makes a difference in fashion products is only really relevant in B2B when you’re explaining the background to the people at your company. But not all the time. I’ve worked with hardware distributors and components manufacturers and these aren’t places where your purchase has got much to do with people. A software developer or cybersecurity consultancy is different, because you’re buying people when you spend money with them.

No B2B copy must ever be devoid of humanity, simply because humans will read it. Take this blog for instance. What you’ve been reading so far is basically a roundabout way of ingratiating myself to people who work at businesses. I may or may not have failed in maintaining your interest, but I really can’t afford to insult your intelligence.

I’ll cover more on what B2B should include (rather than shouldn’t) in future blogs. For now, there must be something else to read…

LEADERSHIP: THE ULTIMATE EMAIL KILLER

“Do as I do, not as I say.” (Or something like that anyway…)

I’ve realised just how much I used to be driven by email. Now I get a relatively manageable 50 or so per day, but it used to be more like 300 and it meant I couldn’t do my actual job. Email became my oracle; feeding my workflow while also demanding to be fed, and containing every audit trail of every piece of work I’d ever done.

I truly believe that there is an art to constructing an email, which takes its lead from the more ancient and dying practice of writing letters. My first summer job was working at an investment company writing letters to customers who wanted an account balance (this was last century folks!) or who had changed address. We had templates, but more often than not you needed to extemporise. I graduated to answering complex enquiries and communicating good/bad news (e.g. “we found a £5,000 trust you didn’t know about”/“we haven’t found the £5,000 policy you swear you took out”) which, looking back, really helped my skill-set.

But email stops being a communications mechanism in the presence of extreme volume. Then it’s just processing. You don’t write them well, and you don’t read them well either.

Yammer: Making it stick

A great way to kill email is by using an enterprise social collaboration platform like Yammer. An easy quick win with Yammer is to railroad certain types of email into this Facebook-like social network that only your colleagues can see. Cakes in the Kitchen, Lottery Money Please, I’m WFH Today, Running Late, LOL Cat Being Sick – all that crap stops showing up in your email overnight.

I recently gave a training session to a national housing group about how to successfully implement Yammer for better internal communications and collaboration. I’ve used Yammer since the beginning and it’s a great tool for saving time as you work together on defined projects and general work stuff alike. The objective wasn’t to show them how to use the platform, but how to get it adopted consensually and make sure it ‘stuck’.

(Incidentally, my timing couldn’t have been more ominous. I’d unwittingly picked the launch day of Facebook at Work for the training session. If anything is going to end up knocking Yammer off its perch, it’ll be FB@W)

We covered everything from email offload and basic document management, to brainstorms, version control and team empowerment. But the thing that will make the difference to that organisation – any organisation – won’t be the training they receive or the platform structure they adopt. No; it’ll be the leadership they demonstrate.

Leadership levels

Leadership needs to happen at two levels to change communications behaviour: (a) the very top, and (b) in and amongst the user community.

So we appointed Yammer Champions to go forth and spread the benefits of the new system and offer support to colleagues. We equipped them with stick and carrot and urged them to be part careworker and part vigilante militia (AKA “The Yammer Police”). This will ensure that the majority who haven’t been converted to the faith slowly and incrementally become the minority.

But people look to their leader in times of change. They have to hear that they’ve bought in to the strategy, but they have to see that they’ve bought in too. We remember the great leader-orators like Lincoln and Churchill; but words are nothing in leadership without deed.

If you’re a CEO or Managing Director who wants to kill email overload, ensure the success of an expensive software implementation or change communications behaviour, you can’t just want it to happen. You have to take the lead; you have to BE the change. Do that and the hard work of others will pay off.

“WHAT BISCUIT ARE YOU?” & OTHER TALES FROM INSIDE THE MESSAGING WORKSHOP

If you’re too close to something, you can’t see it so well. This is the value of an external consultant who not only brings rare skills but also can step back and take a different perspective that’s free from historical baggage, “we’ve always done it this way” thinking and office politics.

Messaging workshops are a very useful way of enabling a communications consultant to get at what is often the most surprisingly difficult thing to articulate: your proposition. But ‘messaging workshop’ is a very arty-farty term isn’t it? I mean, a couple of grand to sit in a room all day with a troupe of prancing marketing types getting you to muse on what sort of biscuit your brand is most reminiscent of…?

If you can get over the name, and get your head around the beautiful simplicity of what happens during one of these sessions, then you’ll realise just how immensely valuable they can be to your entire marketing strategy.

The perfect recipe for a successful messaging workshop:

  • An appropriate group of people from the business itself (in physical attendance rather than conference call – that just doesn’t work), including people who sell the product/service, provide customer support, create the intellectual property etc. Don’t just have marketing people. Make sure the MD/CEO is there.
  • A qualified facilitator who can lead the group through a series of questions and exercises; ably supported by a scribe who can record all of the discussions.
  • A set agenda, with timings, allowing for best use of the day.
  • An agreed set of outcomes. These would typically include the development of a series of ‘elevator pitch’ propositions of varying length with additional consideration to how these could be put to work in creative marketing campaigns and specific channels like PR.
  • A session length of around 6 hours, including for lunch to be brought in.
  • No mobiles or other distractions.

A typical workshop is 40% collecting, 40% creating and 20% therapy. Magic really does happen inside messaging workshops, and it’s surprising just how many times I’ve sat in one and it’s become apparent that the people around the table – all of who occupy senior positions in what is invariably a start up or early stage business – have NEVER got together and talked like this before.

What often isn’t appreciated by people who’ve never commissioned a messaging or positioning workshop is that the majority of the consultant’s work is done AFTER the workshop is finished. Like I said, it’s 40% collecting information and this bit is immensely important in the week or so after the event to interpret and replay the energy, observations and ideas from the session to produce a set of outcomes that are not only what the participants recognise and agree with, but which will serve their objectives for clearer and more differentiated communications.

But there are pitfalls in doing this too. I’ll leave you with some ploys that you need to watch out for when working with a communications consultant on a messaging workshop.

  • The hilarious cost

It is ever the case that, if you pay peanuts, then thou shalt get peanut eating sub-human primates. A lot of time goes into a workshop, a day each for the two consultants plus another two or three days to develop the stuff back at base. What I’m talking about is being shaken down for five, six, seven, TEN thousand pounds by some ultra-cool agency with exorbitant rents to cover. The illusion is all about value. “Is this going to be a valuable exercise?” you quite rightly ask. “Well of course it is – just look how bloody expensive we’ve made it!”

  • Insisting that the workshop takes place offsite or at their premises

This is rubbish; it doesn’t matter where you do it so long as it’s comfortable, accessible and private. This is just a ploy designed to inflate the price or sell other things at you harder.

  • Bigging up their power player

Telling you crap like “We’re really excited to have Frazer pop in for some of today’s session” is an irritating connivance intended to make you believe in the value of a prat in a bow tie and espadrilles. Frazer is no better than anyone else, but by stalking in like some rock-star, only to sulk in the corner and then pop up with a sage comment like: “We don’t need a strategy, we need a stratagem”, he can make even very intelligent, pragmatic people behave like nodding idiots.

Be careful out there everyone. And if you need any more help, don’t be afraid to ask.