Putting social in its place

It’s unfortunately rare I learn of people who, in my opinion, speak the truth in a way that makes me never want to stop learning from them.  Debra Ellis is the newest member of my unofficial Truth Club.

Debra Ellis

I’m not exactly sure how I found Debra’s blog, but upon reading a post for the first time, I was hooked.  Not only was it well written, it made me say out loud, “I love this lady!”  It was direct and clearly rooted in years of experience.  It was unwavering and far from theoretical.  It’s tough to describe, but there is a difference between experience talking and talk that uses all the right buzzwords and jargon.  Debra is the former.

Like talk radio show host and best-selling author Dave Ramsey does for me for finances and business management, Debra gives me comfort and a true North to follow when it comes to marketing.  Here’s my e-chat with her about social media and marketing in all its candor and richness.

1. Business owners are busy people. How do you help them fold in sustainable marketing programs?

Most of the marketing programs that fail do so because they weren’t properly executed. A great strategy won’t work without implementation. Once the best strategy has been determined, we work with our clients to create systems and processes that fit with their technology infrastructure and work schedules. Integrating the strategy into the existing structure is the key to sustainability. We provide a systematic approach that evaluates each stage by cost and return before recommending change.

The two most challenging areas are social media and the integration of departments so customers have a seamless experience from the initial marketing touch to satisfactory completion of the sale. Social media participation is time-consuming and can easily derail the best planned day. We help people implement a schedule that includes regular updates and tools to notify them when their community has responded. This is especially important when the community is being built. There is no reason to dedicate full-time staff to an inactive network. Our approach allows the company to grow their network without a heavy upfront investment.

Maximizing the return from customer acquisition investment is critical to a company’s long-term success. Historically, marketing and customer care don’t work together. We help bridge the gaps by removing bottlenecks and improving communication between the departments. The process can be challenging because you are often dealing with historical issues that foster distrust. The rewards are worth the effort. Once information, successes, and failures are shared universally, everything becomes easier. Customers are more receptive to marketing and happier with the service. Revenue is increased and costs are decreased. It is a win-win for everyone involved.

2. How do you help businesses cut through the mixed messages surrounding incorporating social media into their marketing?

Running every idea through a three question litmus test helps filter the mixed messages:

a. Does this make sense for my company and our customers?

b. What does success look like if it works? (More sales, less costs, or better relationships? If none of these benefits is present, it isn’t right for your company.)

c. What does failure look like if it doesn’t work? (Does the worst case scenario leave a permanent impression? If so, don’t do it.)

Social media works differently for every business. Each company has a unique corporate culture that defines customer expectations. For example, Apple can be creative and fun because their target market expects them to be hip. The same approach wouldn’t work as well for IBM. The mixed messages come from two different sources. The first source is people who have theories about how social should work but don’t have practical experience to prove effectiveness. They tend to be very passionate and absolute in their messaging. And, they are usually wrong because their theories are based on the premise that conversations drive sales.

The second source is people who have implemented a successful strategy and believe that their approach is the answer for all companies. They are equally passionate and absolute in their messaging. And, they are usually wrong because what works in social for one company will fail another. Both sources miss the facts that social media is a marketing enhancer and that people are a wild card. Social media makes traditional marketing better by opening the door to one-on-one relationships between company and customer. Anticipating how customers, prospects, and others will respond is close to impossible. Something that one person finds funny is offensive to another. Every business has to find the voice that works best for the company and customers.

3. What do you say to those who say “traditional marketing” is dying?

Stop wasting time with false claims that show you don’t understand how marketing is changing. Traditional marketing is evolving into micro-marketing where multiple channels and platforms are used to reach smaller segments of people. Social media is part of a bigger marketing strategy. Instead of trying to make social king of everything, invest your time in finding ways to efficiently and effectively integrate it with other channels. The integration of new and traditional marketing provides a better customer experience that can be leveraged into increased revenue and profitability.

Continuing to call for the death of traditional marketing hurts the credibility of social media. Successful marketers use social to improve relationships with their customers. They know a social marketing strategy doesn’t drive sales. It barely drives website traffic. The traffic numbers are increasing but they are weak when compared to direct and search. Tools work best when they are used for the right purpose. When the right marketing tools are used at the right time, great things happen.

4. Do you think social media, as it evolves over time, will drive more business sales or do you see it remaining more of a relationship tool?

Social will always be a relationship tool but the amount of sales attributed to it will increase over time as the tools for targeting and measuring improve. How big it will become is impossible to predict. We don’t even know how big it is right now. The platforms release information about the number of users but it is misleading. How many of the users have abandoned their accounts? How many have multiple accounts? Privacy concerns are also a huge issue that may cause participants to leave the platforms. The best thing marketers can do is find what works for their company in today’s environment and change as needed when the market evolves.

5. There’s no doubt, the lines are blurring between PR and marketing due to increased web reliance. That said, both camps have their specialties. What are your thoughts on leveraging PR as a marketing tool?

The company’s voice has to be consistent across channels and departments. Before the online world turned everyone into a citizen journalist, the PR department could focus on traditional press members and not worry if there were some minor disconnects between the image they were selling and reality. Today everything is different. Perceptions created by the messages generated from PR, marketing, customer care, employees, vendors, customers, and bystanders must match reality or there will be a price to pay. One-off stunts designed to generate viral buzz are risky when they aren’t consistent with corporate policies and should be prohibited.

Leveraging PR as a marketing tool is a three-step process. The first step is planning. It includes defining the message, developing the strategy, and identifying the participants. The next step is education and evaluation. Everyone involved needs to know what the message is and how it can be communicated. Control the areas that can be controlled and be ready to respond when necessary. If there are any activities or policies that create a disconnect between the message and reality, eliminate them or change the message. The final step is implementation. Run with it, document everything, and correct as needed.

6. Where’s the best place to eat in Asheville, N.C. and why?

Asheville is filled with wonderful restaurants. Choosing the best place to eat from so many top choices is an impossible task. Comparison is challenging because the offerings are so diverse. My favorite place to eat tends to change with the seasons and my mood, but there are two that regularly appear on my radar. The first is Beluga Bistro. It is located in North Asheville and serves Italian Greek cuisine. The food is great and the prices are reasonable. My favorite meal is the Greek pizza with a side of Greek salad. The second is 12 Bones Steakhouse. It has two locations – the flagship restaurant on the river in the Arts District and a smaller one in South Asheville – and the best barbecue anywhere. Their ribs are fall-off-the-bone-mouth-watering-good.

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Do you think Debra is right about where social media fits into marketing strategies? Have a thought about anything else she said?  Comment below!  And thanks for reading.

Best of the best insights on PR, marketing to date

Since starting this blog in February, I’ve interviewed nearly 20 PR and marketing pros on, well, communication.  I figured back then I would have interviewed far more than that by now, but turns out, you all are a lot of work!  But you’re worth it because of the insight you provide to those who read PRPBI. (That’s the first time I’ve ever used that acronym, and I don’t think I ever will again. Man, that’s ugly!)

As the name implies, I started this blog to bring forward the people behind the profession, many of whom bring themselves forward on their own very well.  But alas, I chose to do so as a way to give back to them and help bring forward information and perspective that otherwise may have never been available online.

Unsurprisingly, those I’ve interviewed have been more than forthcoming and speared the intent of PRPBI (yeah, still hate it) through the heart.

Here are some of the best bits of PR perspective shared here to date.

Jeff Esposito responding about a blog post asserting social media is dying while social marketing is on the rise

“Social marketing is just another buzz word for social media. Much like other avenues social media is a tool for business that will either make your company money or save it money.  Listening will never be dead as the nature of the medium is social, so brands and marketers need to dig into their human self to put out content that speaks to other humans and can help convert leads to sales.”

Rick Liebling on where social media is headed

“I think we’ve reached an inflection point. Brands no longer can derive value from the first mover advantage of being on Facebook before their competitors. I think we’re going to see companies need to adopt a “social business” strategy that connects several areas of their brand to their customers, clients and the public. Marketing or sales or customer service isn’t enough. R&D, the man on the assembly line, everyone who is part of the process will be connected.”

Recent grad, Boston Blake, giving advice to PR students

“The thing I would recommend most for students to do to prepare for ‘real life’ would be to go out and find opportunities to put into practice the things they are learning in the classroom. Find volunteer, job or internship opportunities. Don’t wait until you are a junior or senior, start immediately. If there aren’t any available, MAKE your own opportunities. People are happy to let you do PR work for them for free. And don’t be afraid to do free work, at least at the beginning. After you spend time doing that, you have quality resume items that will help you get greater opportunities later. These opportunities will help you stand out from other students, especially those who try to enter the work force with only a degree. Everyone has a degree. Make yourself different.”

Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Vician on serving the country as a Public Affairs officer

“Serving means putting others first.  I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Freedom isn’t free.”  I don’t like that saying because for many people it is free.  They have never sacrificed or served others.  I’ve been blessed many times over by serving others, and have served alongside others who have sacrificed so much more than I have.”

Beth Tallent on giving advice to CEOs

“Be honest and direct. It’s not helping anyone if you withhold information. Your CEO hired you for your expertise so give it. If you work in an environment where your CEO consistently doesn’t listen or doesn’t value your advice you might want to look for another position. Dave and I don’t always agree, but I know he’s listening and he values my input.”

Ruth Streder on what she could have done better as a student.

“Be more confident – I attended networking and industry events whenever I was invited to them, but what I was afraid to request informational interviews with agencies or professionals that interested me. I should have just reached out to them, commented on blog posts etc. But back then I thought they would not be interested in talking to a PR newbie – big mistake! If you have an opinion, are interested in discussing industry trends and just keen on learning more about PR, go out and meet people. You have to reach out to them (agencies, companies, professionals) to make them aware of you – they are not going to come and look for you. Take initiative!”

Chuck Hemann on helping clients blend math, science and art together

“This is kind of the secret sauce, right? What’s the appropriate blend of all elements? The answer, like most things in life is “it depends.” I do know this… The abundance of data available to us via social media (or any other form of digital communications for that matter) has almost made qualitative analysis even more important. There has to be a human on the other end of the computer who can collect, segment and analyze for the ultimate use of developing brand-specific insights. Without someone adding the human touch, data is just data. Useful, but only to a certain degree.”

Tanya Montgomery on how the U.S. Air Force can improve its use of social media

“I’d also like to see more people create products with their social media lenses on. I see many traditional AF news stories that inspire my social media senses. I think to myself, it would be great to have pictures of X to put on Facebook and what about a blog post from an Airman quoted in such and such story. It would be great for people to consider social media as well. There are so many possibilities for it.”

Kellye Crane on her vision for Solo PR Pro

“My mission is to raise the visibility and esteem for those working as independent PR consultants, and to help those pursuing this path surpass their goals – it’s something I enjoy and take very seriously.”

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If you know someone, student or pro, who should be featured here, let me know!

Three ways PR pros fail the boss

No matter where you serve in an organization or who your clients are, your work is not the most important thing going on unless you’re the boss.  Staff people, such as PR pros like me, often fall into the trap of only considering their world when advising the boss.  Bosses and clients want experts in their craft.  They want results and to see passion.  What they don’t want is narrow thinking.  Here are 3 ways you may be failing your boss.

1. By not asking them what they want to accomplish. So many PR pros fall into the trap of only thinking about communications.  If you’ve ever said, “Communications is always the most important thing,” you’re not serving your boss well. Find out their goals and what they consider to be the most crucial parts of the operation.  Those will become your top goals and focus areas.

2. Openly bashing a decision in front of your team. We’ve all had bosses who have made bad calls, at least from where we were sitting.  I’m sure you’ve made bad calls, too.  The worst thing you can do in this situation is bash the boss’ decision in front of your team, no matter if the decision was counter to what you may have recommended.  Nothing will deteriorate a team and deteriorate an organization faster than this type of behavior.  When you do this, you’re not only being disloyal to the boss, but to your team as well.  You’re their leader.  They watch you. They mimic your behavior.  And they feed off your attitude.  When you bash, they think it’s okay to bash.  When you’re negative, they’ll be negative. Stop it because you’re being destructive.

3. You jump the chain. Bosses want well-thought out ideas and perspectives that move the organization forward.  The best ideas are usually those that have been chewed on by lots of smart people.  Have you ever presented an idea to a boss or client only to have them ask you if you’ve talked with anyone else about it?  It’s not that they didn’t like your idea (okay maybe they didn’t because it was stupid), they simply wanted to know other smart people they trust have weighed in on it to ensure it’s the best idea possible. Staff people usually can’t see the entire playing field, so before taking big ideas to the boss, bounce them off others, especially those with equities.

What other behavior doesn’t serve the boss well?

Indie PR pros you’re not alone

What services should I offer?  How much should I charge? How do I deal with a problem client?

Solo PR Pro

For the last two years, I’ve been working toward starting my own PR business, which I’m proud to say is up and running.  Having never worked in an agency, where so many independents begin, these questions and many more tripped me up big time along the way.  Truthfully I still have questions about certain things, and I suspect I always will.  Enter Solo PR Pro.

Kellye Crane

My friend Gayle Falkenthal introduced me to the Solo PR Pro Linkedin Group not long after we met at a PRSA conference in San Diego a few years ago.  Since meeting, she has been my go-to person for insight and answers.  Gayle is just spectacular and exemplary of so many of the professionals you can interact with in the group.  She has the heart of a teacher and above all, she’s honest.

After several months on the group, I got curious about who was behind it.  If you don’t know, indie PR pro Kellye Crane is the one pulling the levers.  As you’ll read below, Kellye voluntarily took the lead and created the Solo PR Pro blog for one reason – to help others.  You gotta love it.

Here’s my e-chat with Kellye about how’s it changed over the years, how’s it helped independent pros and her vision for it.

1. What compelled you to start Solo PR Pro?

I’ve been an independent PR consultant since 1995, so colleagues have always asked me for advice about starting a PR business, and how to stay successful long-term once you’ve “taken the leap.” When friends kept asking for blog recommendations to read on this topic – and there really weren’t any – I realized it was time for me to start Solo PR Pro

2. How has it changed since it began?

Since the blog was launched in 2008, a true community has developed across social networks, including the weekly #solopr Twitter chats (held each Wednesday, 1-2pm ET), a Facebook page, and a thriving LinkedIn Group. This free-flowing exchange of ideas is an important part of the success, since all solo PR professionals have different experiences and something to add to the conversation.

It’s all about offering your content on multiple platforms, so participants can access and interact with it in the ways that are the most convenient to them.

3. Has it turned into the community you envisioned or something else?

I always encouraged a community atmosphere, but the reality is even better than I imagined. For that reason, though I founded the blog independently, I’ve never considered the Solo PR Pro community “mine.” I may be the leader/instigator, but the participants provide so much of the value.

4. Do you have a vision for it or do you prefer it to grow and change naturally?

Moving forward, I plan to offer some paid options, such as ebooks and coaching, which will provide me with the resources and time to do more for the community. But the quality of the free info will never change, and I’ll always be receptive to the suggestions and requests of those who participate. My mission is to raise the visibility and esteem for those working as independent PR consultants, and to help those pursuing this path surpass their goals – it’s something I enjoy and take very seriously.

5. Is there anything about Solo PR Pro that you believe is undervalued or underutilized?

Good question! I think some people have had bad experiences with LinkedIn Groups, and hesitate to join another one. But the Solo PR Pros group on LinkedIn is an amazing treasure trove of information.

6. Are there any Solo PR Pro “success stories” you can share involving someone applying a tip or leveraging a relationship?

I’m happy to say that we have hundreds of success stories! In one specific example, someone recently direct messaged me to say that our constant drumbeat of “charge what you’re worth” made a huge difference to her. She raised her rates 50%, and her next two new business proposals were accepted within 24 hours! Not bad, huh?

7. Where’s your favorite vacation spot and why?

I love anywhere beachy – we usually change up the actual location, but it almost always involves sand and surf. To truly relax, I have to sit and do absolutely nothing. So, there’s nothing better than the sound of the waves to make the chill out process complete!

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Have you taken advantage of Solo PR Pro? Did it help?  Do you have a Solo PR Pro success story? Share below!

I also encourage you to subscribe to the blog on the upper right side of the page. Thanks!

Social media and the U.S. Air Force (part 2)

Here is part 2 of my chat with Capt. Chris Sukach and Tanya Montgomery of U.S. Air Force Public Affairs on how the service uses social media.  In case you missed part 1 and hate reading the ending first, click here.

5. What is the AF doing well with SM and what not so well? 

Chris: I think our communications in general tend to be more reactive than proactive.  Both perspectives are needed, but the key is in balancing the two, and I don’t think as an organization we’re quite there yet.

A B-1B Lancer moves into position to be refueled by a KC-135 Stratotanker Feb 26, 2011, above Iraq. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)

Tanya: It would be nice to see more AF senior leaders using social media to communicate. It’s a personal touch that shows they want to stay connected with stakeholders despite their busy schedules. They have perspectives that need to be shared.

The fact that there are many AF social media sites is a great thing. They’re willing to open themselves to the world and share their stories. They’re not afraid to take risks.

6. The military has a reputation for being a conservative, slow-to-change organization. With regard to SM, has that been a challenge? 

Chris: At times it has been, but at other times it seems the organization has moved quite quickly, as with the creation of DTM 09-026.

Tanya: There haven’t been many challenges to implementing social media in the AF. For the most part people understand the importance of social media, and they’re eager to use it.

I think that people are slow to accept that social media is not exactly like traditional public affairs. They forget to think about users and their needs. Not everything that goes on an organization’s website is interesting enough for social media, and what they think is important is not always a home-run on say, Facebook.

I’d also like to see more people create products with their social media lenses on. I see many traditional AF news stories that inspire my social media senses. I think to myself, it would be great to have pictures of X to put on Facebook and what about a blog post from an Airman quoted in such and such story. It would be great for people to consider social media as well. There are so many possibilities for it.

7.  Who do you follow (people, blogs, etc.) outside the AF to learn about SM trends and such?

Chris: I like ReadWriteWeb, Mashable and TechCrunch.  I also dig NakedSecurity.

Tanya: I follow Mashable, PR Daily, Social Media Today, The Next Web, TechCrunch, AllFacebook, AllTwitter, Brian Solis, and Peter Shankman.

8. Give me an example of when using SM really paid off for the AF?

Chris: There are multiple examples, but we’ve engaged via social media to quell rumors, answer questions and share first-hand experiences of the relief and assistance our Airmen were providing in Haiti after the Jan 2010 earthquake.

Tanya: Social media has been helpful in crises. CNN once reported that there was a C-17 crash near Olney, Texas. The social media team investigated it and couldn’t find anything to back up the claim. They verified with the FAA that there was no crash and corrected the record via Twitter. CNN later ran a story with the correct information.

9. Between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, who would be a better social media strategist and why? 

Chris: Beaker.  He’s definitely the back-channel providing commentary to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s monologues.

Tanya: Kermit the Frog would be a better social media strategist because he’s practical and thoughtful. He would take a common sense approach to social media, and he’d be careful about what he posted. However, he might be too careful, and it might be hard for him to let loose when necessary. Miss Piggy, on the other hand, is an extrovert and wouldn’t have a problem interacting with people on social media. However, she might blab too much and say things she shouldn’t say. Kermit could be trained to be social on social media, but Miss Piggy would be a hopeless case.

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So which Muppet do you think would make a great social media manager?  Did you read anything here you can use at your organization?  Comment below.

Social media and the U.S. Air Force (part 1)

The U.S. Air Force has approximately 280 Facebook pages, 50 YouTube channels, 115 Twitter feeds, 30 Flickr pages, and 12 blogs.  You may be thinking, “Wow! I never expected that.”  You also may be wondering why so many?  After all it’s just one organization, right?

U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds

Wrong.  The USAF has bases all over the world.  And bases typically host several units all of which do different things, and every one of theses bases and units communicates with different audiences. For instance, Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio has a base Facebook page, which is followed by current and former base employees, family members of employees and members of the community.

The base medical unit decided to create its own Facebook page to interact with a more targeted audience.  The base also hosts a headquarters that oversees about 10 USAF bases, including WPAFB, and that headquarters has a Facebook page to reach their audience.  We’re not done.  The base also hosts an Air Force Reserve flying unit.  It of course has a Facebook page, too, to reach its workers, community members and USAF reservists, aka military part-timers. Confused yet?

At this point, you may be thinking there has to be a better way.  Perhaps there is.  Regardless, the advantage of allowing 280 Facebook pages is tailored engagement with audiences who opt-in.

And there’s no larger audience than that which follows the main USAF social platforms.  For starters, the USAF on Facebook has more than 503,000 Likes.  Air Force Blue Tube has more than 5,500 subscribers and has logged more than 2,390,000 upload views.  And @USAirforce has more than 25,000 followers.  As an Air Force Public Affairs guy who has managed base-level social media, I wanted to know more about what’s it like to manage “big” Air Force social platforms.  Here’s part 1 of my chat with Capt. Chris Sukach and Tanya Montgomery.

1. Did you immediately see the potential of social media for the AF or did it take a while?

Chris Sukach

Chris: I think any PR professional who’s participated via Twitter recognizes the immediacy of the medium and understands how it could be a valuable communication tool, especially in a crisis.  I think we also understand the importance of being part of a community (or communities) and tools like Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube provide avenues for listening to and sharing with those communities.

Tanya: I joined the USAF social media team a little over a year ago, which was long after the Air Force Public Affairs Agency started using social media. As the leader of the social media team, I naturally believe in the potential of social media for the Air Force, and any organization, for that matter. What’s not to love about direct access to stakeholders?

2. Why is it important for the AF to embrace social media?

Chris: First I think it’s important that we understand the basics of social media.  It’s a tool in our communication tool kit, but like many tools one has to understand its purpose in order to use it effectively.  A saw can be used to pound in a nail, but a hammer might be a better choice for the job.  The same is true of our communication tools.  The key is in defining the communication effect we wish to achieve so we can choose the proper tool(s) for the task.

Tanya: The AF has embraced social media for two main reasons. First, it’s important to dissolve the notion that the AF is a faceless monolith. It’s comprised of many different people and activities. Each person has a unique, important experience to share about his or her time with the AF, and they can tell the stories better than any public affairs pro. Overall, we want to connect with the public to show them that we’re people too and that there’s more to us than just powerful aircraft.

Second, it’s important for us to share the Air Force story before someone else, such as the enemy, tells it for us. We want people to see us as the trusted source for all things Air Force.

Tanya Montgomery

3. When you arrived at your former job handling AF social media, how did you advance it?

Chris: Our social media team worked with our counterparts across the Dept. of Defense to help create the framework for what became Directive-Type Memorandum 09-026, which established guidance for social media usage across the services.

Tanya: The first thing I did was create some order and processes. I don’t like micro-managing things, but to a certain extent, processes need to be in place, even for something as organic as social media. It’s important for team members to know their responsibilities, and for the first time since social media started with the Air Force Public Affairs Agency, we’ve had more than just a couple of people. I’m the only civilian employee on the social media team, so knowledge management is a priority in a sea of blue.

I also wanted to avoid a “sophomore slump,” so we needed to think strategically. A social media program that has been around awhile needs to be somewhat sophisticated. One thing I started was tracking measurement and doing analysis. It’s extra work, but it really helps us make decisions. Now I know which of our activities work and don’t work, which obviously means that we can spend more time creating effective posts. We also know our audience a bit more, so we can do a better job of giving them what they crave.

4. Where do you see the AF’s use of SM going?

Chris: I think that all depends on where social media goes.  I think most would agree that the social media tools we’re currently using aren’t yet finished evolving, so our usage of them should remain flexible enough to incorporate changes as they occur.

Tanya: In the future, I think AF organizations will fully embrace social media for the right reasons. As they gain more experience and learn more about social media, they will see that it’s not about pushing information; it’s all about the user and building connections.

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Don’t miss part 2 of my chat with Chris and Tanya tomorrow as they dish more on Air Force social media and which Muppet would make the best social media manager.  In the meantime, check out this highly detailed Air Force Social Media Guide, which explains how and why the service uses social media.  It’s a great template for any large organization that engages heavily online.