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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.

ARE YOU THE SALESPERSON FROM HELL?

I’m looking for someone. He’ll be mid to late 40s by now, balding and slightly overweight. Smells faintly of booze, enjoys letting his gaze linger on the bottoms of passing females, and has at least entertained the possibility of owning a Ford Probe. He’s faced a lifetime of rejection, interspersed by occasional glimmers of acceptance that have converted into financial reward; subsequently exchanged for ill-fitting suits and a casual drug habit. Probably. While he certainly isn’t representative of IT salespeople today, he was all too common back then. We need to find him to stop him doing himself any more harm.

Selling – as easy as ABC…

It was the year 2000 and my first big Christmas networking function as a wet-behind-the-ears PR exec. Anxious to introduce myself to journalists (in the vain hope of establishing enough of a rapport that they’d publish my stories/talk to my clients) I stumbled across this sales guy and his colleague. Their names have been changed.

Me:                   “Hi, I’m David”

Sales Guy:      “Hi. Alistair; this is the lovely Sandra…”

Me:                    “Hi there, wow it’s busy in here!”

Sales Guy:       “Yeah it is. And…?”

Me:                    “So, er… are you a journalist?”

Sales Guy:       “I cannot f—king believe this! Hey Sandra, this  kid  has come up to talk to me and hasn’t even got his business card out for me yet!”

He plainly wasn’t a journalist – I learn later that he sells kit for an IT equipment company and Sandra is the account manager at the PR agency his firm uses. Alistair clearly though I was trying to sell to him, when in fact nothing could have been further from my mind. In any case, I’d clocked him as a monumental arse. It isn’t his fault. He’d clearly been brutalised by a sales environment so macho that he felt it necessary to impose himself like a urinating skunk. Eager to spar, he’d all but demanded my business card but, despite the conspicuously enormous stack of newly printed ones in my pocket, I wasn’t about to actually apologise (in true British style) and present him with it. So we continued our awkward tête-à-tête:

Me:                     “Oh well… er… how are you guys doing for a drink?”

Sales Guy:       “Seriously – are you not going to give me your business card? He’s not giving me a f__king business card Sandra!”

Me:                     “Well, I…”

Sales Guy:       “This is f__king classic – too late mate, I’m not interested. Bye!”

Sandra:           “Aww Alistair, c’mon he’s only being friendly…”

Me:                  “Look guys, I hope you have a nice party and everything… I’m going now…”

As I moved to withdraw, Alistair took my arm and leant in to impart a brotherly, conspiratorial piece of advice: “ABC, mate – yeah? ABC…? First rule of sales: Always. Be. Closing.”

So I feigned politeness before retiring to the toilets to scour every trace of Alistair off my skin, from my ears and out the back of my retinas.

‘Alistair’ represents the abundant lack of sophistication that lurks in the darkest recesses of the worst salespeople. It isn’t just that he’s rude and boorish. It’s that he can’t possibly hope to win with any buyer that he can’t successfully bully, or who isn’t at least as ignorant as him. Despite apparent confidence and expertise in the matter, he shows how people like this understand nothing about how the process of selling works. In case you’re wondering, a full-on sales hammering on a cold prospect is a sure-fire way to fail.

To me, organisations must recognise two universal principles:

  • People do not like being sold to
  • Customer requirements, preferences and decisions need time to arrive at

Do you like being sold to?

Another, less abrasive attribute that marks ‘Alistair’ out as a particular breed of salesperson is his professed delight at being sold to. I’ve encountered this many times in my career, and it would be dangerously unfair to characterise all people with this view as being knuckle-scrapers like Alistair. I assume/hope that the reason for this state-of-mind is wariness. By being totally cognisant that you are the target of a cold sales pitch, you can guard against it, or even study it from a position of safety. Ergo, they enjoy being sold to in much the same way as some people enjoy goading the animals at the zoo, from a secure vantage point behind three inches of toughened perspex.

For everyone else, here are several reasons why ‘enjoying being sold to’ (i.e. in a ‘cold’ or unsolicited scenario) is either a lie, or symptomatic of some kind of underlying personality disorder:

Being sold to makes the buyer feel stupid

The process of being sold to is essentially a reasoning framework. The salesperson learns about your situation (or has intelligence about it already) and then applies reasoning to why buying their product or service promises a positive resolution. The entire premise for being sold to is therefore: you can’t adequately reason for yourself.

Being sold to is like being tricked

You’ve spotted that you’re being sold to, and sirens are blaring in your head that say: “This person wants my money.” But watch the very best salespeople at work and you can’t tell they are ‘selling’. This explains their success: if people could better experience the sensation of being sold to then they would buy less. Therefore, being sold to is unpleasant.

Being sold to invites faster decisions than you need to make right now

As Alistair points out, the real skill of salespeople is often around ‘closing’. They might be given a ‘sales lead’ that is highly qualified and engaged, and their job is to engage with that lead and provide whatever support necessary to make it into revenue. In this instance, all of the ‘selling’ is around timing, and the timing is very transparently chosen to benefit the seller. As a buyer, if you want to take your time, then you should.

If I wanted this, I’d be calling you (not the other way around)

Consumer rights programmes like Watchdog are full of stories about vulnerable pensioners who suddenly find themselves burdened with a £20k conservatory/loft extension/insurance product that they didn’t actually want or need. If they weren’t vulnerable to succumbing to sales pitches (I’m not talking about unscrupulous criminals here; just everyday salespeople) then they wouldn’t have these problems. We live in a day and age where all the information you need about everything that’s available to procure is just a click away. You can lead a successful life and career without ever ‘missing out’ on the opportunities presented to you by someone contacting you and trying to sell you something.

No – being sold to is not nice. But plenty of organisations do a fantastic job of engaging existing and prospective customers in their products, their philosophy and their value. They can’t achieve this by going after their leads like a bull in a china shop.

Nurturing pays dividends

Great salespeople are valuable assets to their organisations, and each of them already knows all of this. The conclusion I’m driving at is a patient and purposeful approach to marketing. Not quite slow marketing perhaps, but certainly a methodology that accepts the distaste that buyers feel for the sales process, and the importance of positioning content and insight of genuine value as part of a ‘nurturing’ process.

Get in touch if you’d like to find out more about what this actually means. I’ve made sure I’ve got plenty of business cards lying around just in case, though I’m reserving one of them for a special someone…

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…

CLEGGMANIA PART II

It’s election season in the UK, and the climaxing cavalcade of ‘Election Debates’ has given us the last opportunity to watch various grasping bastards simultaneously begging for our favour. I’m sorry but watching politicians trying to get their message across is particularly sickening for communications professionals, because the cynicism is even easier for us to detect. It’s a bit like marketing people and their ability not to fall for brands. Brands are for people who DON’T completely appreciate what’s really, insidiously, going on to take your money in exchange for guff.

But anyway – back to the politics. Before I go any further, I am not advocating any political party. I just wanted to point out the PR machinations surrounding one political leader, Nick Clegg. Let me also state that I did not vote Liberal Democrat in the last Election and see no reason to change this time around.

Clegg’s biggest communications mistake was not to contradict his previously ardent position on tuition fees by being part of a government who trebled them when he promised to abolish them. His mistake was to misjudge the press and public’s wilful ignorance of how a coalition government is supposed to work.

A poll in today’s Independent shows that 50% of undergraduate students will never vote LibDem because of Clegg’s infamous U-Turn. Only 6% intend to support Clegg’s party next month, compared to 23% who said they would before 2010’s General Election. The collapse in support is being egged on by the National Union of Students, which represents 7 million students, and recently unveiled a billboard campaign branding the LibDems ‘liars’ and ‘pledge breakers’.

Even the laziest student of political history would agree that coalition governments are very unusual in the UK, with the last few being necessary for the purposes of our total war against national annihilation. Following the 2010 Election, with neither Labour nor Conservatives willing to proceed with a weak minority government, the LibDems entered into a Coalition Agreement with the objective of assailing the nation’s imminent bankruptcy.

Coalitions are far more common in other democratic countries, where a broad spectrum of opinion and vested interests inevitably ends up being more or less fairly represented by a governing executive. It goes a bit like this: no one party gets to implement 100% of its manifesto commitments. Indeed, if a small party like Plaid Cymru (likely to return three or perhaps four MPs in the Election; 0.5% of the House of Commons) were to join a coalition government this year, they’d count themselves fortunate to have a single unique policy implemented.

It’s easy to forget just how much the public warmed to Nick Clegg during the 2010 Election. An honest, business-like antidote to Cameron’s “Little Lord Fauntleroy” and Brown’s awkward cheesiness, the big catchphrase was “I agree with Nick”. Indeed, if the LibDems had made “I agree with Nick” their campaign slogan, they might have returned more than 57 seats.

With the Conservatives represented by 47% of the House, and the Liberal Democrats by a little under 9%, the gruesome twosome could rely on a majority to implement an agreed policy programme.

Imagine you had voted Liberal Democrat in that General Election. In the vast majority of cases, your vote would have been unlikely to make a difference in your local constituency because of jealously guarded constituency boundaries and our arcane ‘first-past-the-post’ system. Despite the LibDems’ 6.8m votes putting them in third place behind Labour’s 8.6m votes, Labour won nearly five times as many seats.

And yet you could say that your horse won (sort of). Even if your vote had carried a local LibDem to Westminister, without the Coalition Government in place your voice would have been entirely incidental to change. Frankly, that number of MPs may as well have stood outside protesting in the rain for all the good their measly voting block would have done them.

A revised estimate for the yellow-coloured (i.e. LibDem) proportion of the Coalition Agreement put into action between 2010-2015 is 40%. In other words, despite making up less than 9% of the House, 16% of the Coalition Government, and 23% of the popular vote, the Liberal Democrats ended up managing to control around 40% of the government’s actions. By any standards, anyone voting Liberal Democrat in 2010 enjoyed an outrageous return on their support.

Having achieved an unprecedented political coup, Nick Clegg is likely to preside over a complete obliteration of his party’s fortunes in next month’s Election. Despite his obvious communications skills, and his clever PR spins in recent weeks about “Salmond, Farage or me” and the threat of “Blukip”, Clegg’s problem continues to be an inability to get his message across.

No newspaper or TV network supports the Liberal Democrats. Aside from the few impartial ones, each strongly favours Labour, the Conservatives or (in the case of the Daily Express) UKIP. This isn’t helping Clegg’s message succeed.

I don’t like the idea of £9,000 a year tuition fees, and neither do students. But the biggest pity of all this is that the brightest young minds of our generation can’t seem to understand the simple truth behind coalitions. The message is coming through far too faintly, and – regardless – they just aren’t listening.

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.

TO THE MARKETING MANAGERS

Here’s to the marketing managers – the cajolers and the wranglers

The ones who make the deals, who smooth the bumps in the road

The problem sorters, the burden shoulderers

Here’s to the organisers; the fixers

The type of professional who looks at Mr Wolf from Pulp Fiction sorting out the aftermath of Marvin getting shot in the face and says: “I could do that. Hell, I DO do that.”

You guys can get people round the table…

Here’s to the arse-kickers, the action takers, the bullshit detectors

Who know how to plan, and know when the plan needs to go out the window

Here’s to the swans, serenely floating along, while furiously paddling like hell

Who ‘get’ it, but rarely get the credit for it

Here’s to the hustlers, the ones with a knack for finding budget

Who know all the tricks, and when to use them

You are the motors and the motivators. You don’t give up. You see it to the end. You get it out the door.

And I’m not just saying that.  I mean – where would we all be without you?

Gorging on Christmas Content

The earliest journalist content request for a Christmas related article I got this year (from Peter of Rowing & Regatta magazine) was the 23rd of June.

Print magazines continue to use Christmas to jostle with each other on the newsstand. Even for those mags distributed on controlled circulations, it’s a time for bumper issues, annual round-ups and free giveaways. It’s also the time for most yearly subscription renewals, and that all-important December issue is the last make-or-break chance to make a genuine impression. However, there are less print magazines now than ever, and so the proportion of corporate communications being funnelled to buyers through that channel is getting marginalised.

The typical method of reaching the corporate buyer remains email, and again we see Christmas emerge as a common theme for content. You’re more than likely to receive some of these in your inbox in the run up to Christmas:

  • The ‘instead of burning carbon to send you a Christmas card, we thought we’d email you this’ seasonal greeting
  • The ‘lessons from 2014 you can put into action now’ list of top tips
  • The ‘what’s going to be really important in 2015 that we just happen to be ideally placed to sell you right now’ thought leadership piece
  • The ‘countdown to Christmas’ series of promotional emails, with a new one every single day
  • The ‘best content/news from the past year’ round-up (great for covering up the profound lack of any fresh content/news)
  • The ‘make sure you enjoy yourself this Christmas without having to worry about things that might go wrong as a direct consequence of not buying one of our products yet’ semi-threatening discount deal
  • The ‘buy now for no other reason than because it’s Christmas and we’ve stuck reindeer everywhere’ limited time offer

The obvious drawbacks with this approach are:

  • It’s a bit hackneyed, isn’t it?
  • The amount of Christmas related spam email always spikes during this time of year, and your message is a high risk of being zapped by the recipient (if the spam filter doesn’t get it first)
  • Email is also diminishing as a proportion of corporate communications voice, with the slack being taken up by social.

Ah… social. Real-estate wise, we’ve gone from A4 sized magazine cover landing on someone’s desk, to an email subject line enduring in someone’s inbox, to now – with social – an ephemeral snapshot of content appearing momentarily in the line of sight of a busy person’s fickle social media preference. What to put in those 140 characters or less…? Does your community want it to be full of knockabout festive cheer, or to continue engaging them on the kinds of trusted content you’ve worked hard to develop in the other 350 days of the year?

Christmas is 9 characters long (unless you’re the kind of heathen who’d swap for Xmas) and many people are sick of it by mid-December. We all need a creative theme for our content, but how creative is it when it’s the same theme as everyone else?

I say you threaten your integrity by complacently going through the motions with any kind of content. If you really want to share a good old-fashioned Christmas message with your customers or prospects, then you should absolutely go ahead and do it. But if you started looking at the calendar in mid-November and thought: “Eh up, time to wheel out the chrimble schmaltz,” then kindly go and stick it up your chimney.

And before I unwittingly cause offence by overlooking the religious and spiritual significance of Christmas, consider for a moment – by comparison – what vacuous lack of homage a box-shifting IT distributor is paying when it spams customers about its 2 for 1 Christmas offer on Ethernet routers.

A little less Christmas surely makes the Christmas we’ve got left far more special.

SLOW MARKETING

I can’t abide airy-fairy marketing nonsense, but I do love a rhyming ditty. Hence I have come up with this:

“A brand should take a stand.”

I’m not giving advice about buying tradeshow booths here. Nor am I pumping any more molten excrement into the already steaming and heavily laden bandwagon of brand philosophy.

No. What I’m talking about is resistance; resistance against the pace that marketing is played at. I’m advocating thoughtfulness and purpose, but also unhurriedness and inevitability. Don’t mistake this as a charter for just chugging along or a manifesto for the festering. Damn it people, we need a strategy for slowness.

Slow food, slow travel, slow parenting – the whole slow movement is a fascinating concept, founded on the simple calculation that rushing around trying to get it done fast makes the end product markedly crapper than if you took your time. So why not slow marketing?

I interviewed an experienced PR Account Manager for a job once, and can still remember being completely taken aback when he introduced the notion of a three-year PR plan.

Having worked in an agency environment for so long, working exclusively in the very fast-moving technology sector, I scoffed at the idea and probably pontificated at him about ‘the quick and the dead’ and the realities of needing immediate results for extremely demanding clients.

Since then, things have only gotten faster and busier. New social media platforms, 24-hour TV news cycles, computers in everyone’s pockets, an explosion in rich media content… everything points to instant gratification both for the fee-paying corporate client of PR and communications services, and for their buyer audiences.

I thought that interviewee was talking garbage, but in fact it was me with his head in a bin. How far can you genuinely succeed with a six-month strategy, a two-month plan or a three-week campaign? You can measure progress and you can evaluate results, but if it’s the brand we’re talking about then you’re not giving yourself enough time to convince real human beings to impart trust and display curiosity. You can barely get them to click a link, and when they do we tell ourselves it really matters.

If you Google ‘Slow Marketing’, you could soon end up encountering the kind of (very nice) people who may or may not have done far too much acid in the 90s, have never had venture capitalists breathing down their necks, and whose idea of ‘putting food on the table’ is a split decision between having blueberry or cranberry jus to accompany the venison course.  Some cool ideas though…

But, to my mind, slow marketing doesn’t have to be a socks-and-sandals revolution. You can add the following slow principles into your marketing and communications thinking and benefit… er… pretty much immediately…

  • Remove the imperative from calls to action. Instead of ‘Buy Now’ and ‘Register Today’, treat your audience like sentient beings by encouraging them to think about the proposition. Go the whole hog and create a button labelled ‘Sleep On It’ and make sure nothing but zzzzzzzz happens when anyone clicks.  Seriously!
  • Stop changing straplines. If you spent enough time getting it right, stick with it. For ages…
  • Broadcast less, engage more. Use social feeds to ask what’s going on, what people want. Talk with your community, not to it…
  • Put your experts in the front line. No one gets to speak to anyone integral to the product in a dirt cheap supermarket or fast-food joint, but they do at a premium priced farmer’s market stall or upmarket restaurant.
  • Plan longer.  Build for the long term and your structure will last.

WHEN TYPOS REALLY ARE CRIMINAL

Chirpy FT regular Lucy Kellaway is always good value, and her article on BBC Online this week, about the relative unimportance of spelling mistakes and typos, was guaranteed to get a vociferous response from grammar zealots. I’ve some sympathy for her position, having already staked out my red lines around typographical fastidiousness, but the truth is that this lady has gone too far.

I, like Lucy, have made a great many howlers in my time. Indeed, “I, like Lucy,” may even be one of them. The reason these made it in front of my clients (and on at least one occasion, in print) was because I didn’t try hard enough to identify the faults and correct them. Like making sure there’s no hair in the sandwiches I make my kids every morning, it DOES matter. It matters because the act of writing is an intimate communication process between a writer and a reader. Failing to apply the highest possible care in delivering that content fundamentally disrespects the reader, and if you disrespect the reader then what was the point in sitting down to write your ditty in the first place?

I get a pile of spam email every day, most of which is funnelled into a spam folder that I rarely open. Spam is often the delivery mechanism for extremely damaging bugs and viruses, or the opening gambit for a ‘phishing scam’ where the email appears to be from your bank or business supplier but is in fact from a rather nasty character in Belarus called Vlad. Clicking on a link or opening an attachment could be a disaster. The information security industry makes billions of pounds a year developing technology to identify and stop the bad stuff reaching you; letting the good stuff pass through unfettered.

Telling the difference between a cybercriminal attack and a legitimate email is very simple, if you take the time to read for spelling, grammar, syntax, formatting and so on.

I’ve written about information security for over 10 years and seen a great many malicious email threats. Cybercriminals are doing astonishingly clever things with code that run rings around national intelligence agencies and anti-virus scientists. But never, in all that time, have I read a cybercriminal email that was sophisticated enough in its use of English to look as though it was written by the marketing/comms department of – say – a UK high street bank.

That’s a blatant crime if ever you saw one.