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What’s so ’social’ about product pitches?

Or when did social media become all about online PR?

As things have evolved these last two+ years in the digital social space one thing is becoming increasingly clear: there is far too much focus on blogger relations (aka product pitches direct to consumer) and focusing on alleged “influencers”. The echo chamber has been filled with arguments about how to best “reach out to bloggers” (which means how to best get them to write about your product at the end of the day) and the alleged “social media” press releases. I’m going to throw my wet blanket onto this because frankly I see it doing a real disservice to the potential of the space and leading companies down a path that skirts the outsides of the promise of what Web 2.0 communication tools can really bring to marketing communications.

Let me say this at the start: Web 2.0 is not about YOU. No really, it’s not.

That may sound dogmatic and counter-intuitive, but allow me to explain… It never was about you to begin with, it’s always been about filling a need for the people buying (or looking to buy) your products or services and providing them with *information* where they are seeking it, listening to their feedback, and interacting when *they* want to… not spin or hype. It’s about facilitating their interactions, not yours. It’s not about shiny new toys, or 80 million different channels to push your message out.

Most average folks really don’t care, or have the time, to have a “relationship” with a brand. The majority don’t have blogs where they want to review products. Most people aren’t paid to do so as the plethora of social media consultants are. If we step outside of the echo chamber of PR bloggers, social media evangelists, and tech start-ups, the majority of people just want the product they bought to work as advertised, to be able to find out real information about it, to be able to provide feedback when they feel the need, and a real person (who is empowered to do more than say “thems the rules”) to interact with them painlessly when they do – online or offline. Oh, and the ability to find out quickly what their peers are saying about it – with biases clearly spelt out.

For a company, web 2.0 tools have the potential to expand the reach of their messaging if approached strategically and with fundamental marketing principles in play. They can be used to facilitate content distribution & development; intelligence gathering to inform your marketing and product development; customer service (online & offline); search engine optimization; internal communications; usability and user experiences; expanding the brand essence, etc.

Where does “please send me links to your press release via email” come into play?

Let’s be realistic and clear — Social Media Press Releases are micro-sites for a product or announcement. This isn’t “game changing”, it’s just borrowing from what interactive advertising was doing 7 years ago and adding RSS and API feeds and using it as a landing page to direct bloggers and journalists to. That’s hardly something that deserves the amount of air-time it’s been getting if we are being honest (and doing more than patting each other on the back within the echo chamber). And it’s something that companies are spending a ton of money on for a highly niche audience, which may or may not be the right strategy for their brand.

Where’s the “pull” in product pitches?

/end rant (for now).

[Photo Credit: FelipeArte via Flickr]

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The great viral swindle?

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I was hesitant to weigh in on the latest kerfuffle raised by the recent TechCrunch post, frankly, because I knew all of these black hat tactics were being utilized by those less savory in our field, and the post just confirmed it, but felt I had to do so when I realized that too many people in our industry were surprised (vs. the ‘regular folks’ in the TC comments who were justifiably outraged, if not surprised).

Let’s apply some logic here – the Internet is a huge, unruly place, with millions of people and companies vying for attention. Dollars are shifting online in record fashion and LOTS of service companies want a piece. How do you break through the clutter, prove results and make a buck? By pushing the limits to the edge, as all firms: advertising, marketing, PR, Web 2.0, etc. do? Do we really suppose that we’ve always done things completely ethically? I’d like to say yes, but I’ve worked for too many firms with client expectations and million dollar budgets on the line to ever make that claim with a straight face. I know that I founded my own strategic marketing firm because I grew sick and tired of tactics employed, lack of true innovation, and egos, and I keep a firm grip on how myself and my team execute projects and develop strategies, but that’s just little old Wildfire in a sea of thousands. I also am (speaking of ego) able to better navigate the waters and develop innovative strategies precisely because of my track-record in the interactive space and the focus I’ve always placed on customer relationships vs. pure push advertising. It’s easier to determine how to balance a company’s need for bottom-line ROI while remaining authentic and transparent about the tactics employed: been there done that and seen a lot. For example, I’m particularly proud of the creative concept and integrated strategy I developed while working with TFC for Sharp Canada (Aquos 1080p D82 Challenge) precisely because it was pure branding, social responsibility, and community engagement. It worked on all levels and the bottom line result was good for Sharp and good for the environment.

That being said, why are we surprised? It takes work and a lot of money to be truly immersed in the Internet and social media space, and with profit margins at agencies and companies being pushed further down, is it realistic to expect that any firm can afford that much R&D and people-hours? Folks expect to get paid and brands expect a return on investment that is tangible. The bottom line for all brands is to sell product and satisfy their shareholders (which is why they are called “for profit”). That will not change, and it’s why 30-second spots still work, even if they’re being moved online in increasing numbers (hello, viral spots). And, as consumers get more sophisticated, more people will recognize not to necessarily trust what you read online unless you know the person, or unless it’s independently verified (ala Consumer Reports) like all of us old skool interactive geeks realized about 7 years ago. Everyone has an agenda, that’s just life. We don’t live in a utopia, we live in a capitalist society. Even the old standard, The Red Cross, was less than pure after 9/11. We can change things, for sure, but change takes time; people aren’t a piece of software that we can just upgrade when we discover a bug or want to add a new feature.

Why are we trying to figure out social media ROI at all if we believe it’s all about the long-term relationship? True relationships take years to develop, just because someone joins your community, for whatever internal and external reasons suit their needs at the moment, it’s just as easy to leave when it doesn’t. That’s what churn is. Consumers own their relationships with a brand and for that reason they also own the conversation – trying to satisfy everyone while continuing to make money is the rub of social media. You can’t have an agency built with everyone’s best friend. The participation economy is a reality, but it’s also a fallacy when you step outside of our bubble. Hip Hop artists don’t do product placement in videos and start their own clothing lines (multi-billion dollar industry) because someone wrote a positive review online or added them as a ‘friend’ in Facebook.

Let’s be realistic. How much time do you spend on YouTube scouring the new submissions, rating them up and sending them along? With over 10k submitted per day, my guess is not enough that you could spot “the next big thing” without having someone point you to it. The recent WOM conference in Toronto in April of this year recognized Chevrolet for their “Let’s Go Chevy” campaign as being a WOM success story when the company was blaring the URL in TV spots, banner ads, newspaper ads, etc. etc. Did we complain then (well, I did, but not too many others)? Why is that okay and not the tactics employed by The Commotion Group except for our own expectations of the purity of the space? It’s not. Neither of them is okay. We need to take off our rose-coloured glasses and think in the big picture. I don’t employ the tactics used in the article, but I get the feeling I’m in the minority (and no, I’m not going to share my secrets), and although a shame, we should look at this as a learning opportunity and be prepared to recognize that if we really want to succeed in this brave new world, we have to be honest with our clients about how much time and effort it will take to build lasting success… and what success truly means. We need to stop speaking to ourselves and start exploring the space.

We bloggers even do similar things – link-bait posts that exist solely to drive traffic/ reputation (Lists upon lists of “the top blogs”, posting on your own blog about a controversy instead of responding in the comments elsewhere: just like this post, etc), “calling outs” to stir controversy, speaking to our own echo chamber and measuring success against that, plagiarism, passing ourselves off as experts in the space when we aren’t, whatever. None of us are true angels. No one is completely pure in reality, and that includes the consumers we are trying to reach.

Perhaps this will be a wake-up call, but I think not. Too much money on the line and the easy way out is usually the one people take (especially for products such as movies that have a short shelf life to make a buzz on opening weekend – the majority of the clients The Commotion Group appears to work for). I know that I’ll continue doing what I do, and one of these days I’ll hang it all up and go be a yoga-instructor and run a golf course up north. Until then, I’m not jumping on any bandwagons and I’ll keep learning, experimenting, educating clients, and being a hurricane when appropriate.

But that’s just my opinion – there are a million of them (manufactured or not) out there to choose from.

Update: Tony Hung has a good post on this as well…. a choice bit:

Mike Arrington himself seems a bit taken aback by how honest the post is, but is anyone *really* shocked?

Are your (or anyone’s) sensibilities *really* that delicate?

….

Bottom line is that this post pulls the curtain back on a phenomenon that any rational thinking individual would already suspect.

That is, when there is financial incentive and opportunity to game a system — even when that system has the appearance of being “open”, “transparent”, and built upon the goodwill and trust of its users (how typically quaint!) — someone will do it.

And the best of them will do it in such a way that no one else will even *know*.

[photo credit: daryldarko via Flickr]

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Social Media News Release for a ‘Social Media’-based campaign

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I don’t usually blog about client business, but this current campaign we’re running for AppliancePartsPros.com is an exception imo because of the nature of the “news” itself.

Appliance Parts Pros is a pure ecommerce internet company that has been growing steadily for 8 years now and they have embraced blogging, direct interaction with customers, and search, in all their strategies to date. When Wildfire (working in conjunction with Page Zero Media) was tasked with coming up with a holiday promotion that could extend beyond traditional, the natural fit was to run a blog contest and engage the community outside of a strict online contest structure. We started by looking at ‘who’ AppliancePartsPros is at its core, what makes sense for the brand, their customers, and their community. The result is the “Comforts of Home” Holiday Contest. The promotion was built in two phases: the first was philanthropy and a donation to US soldiers serving overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan by sending 80 “Comforts of Home” care packages out in early November. The second was the contest itself, where not only can participants enter to win an iPhone¬Æ or Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer¬Æ, but, if they have a blog, can also help to build an item in a care package that will be delivered in mid-December. For every 5 blog posts about a holiday cooking horror story, or a text, video, or audio message to US troops, one additional care package will be sent.

Of course, a key part of this promotion is outreach to the community; be they military bloggers, food bloggers, holiday bloggers, or DIY bloggers. We spent a significant amount of time getting to know the space and who might be interested in hearing from us directly. We also prepared a Social Media News Release (I refuse to call it a press release because the people who consume the content may not be “press”, but the item itself is “news”). We used a customized version of the Shift Communications template for the SMNR and so far the feedback from the community we are reaching out to has been terrific and heartwarming. The outreach and interaction is on-going, and is now moving into the news media phase as well. We did not include comments or trackbacks on the SMNR because of the blog posts and comment abilities there (where folks should be heading to enter the contest!), but did include Digg, del.ici.ous, and Flickr links.

I’m proud of this promotion, the SMNR, and having a fantastic client willing to try new things. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on the release and the contest, and will share results when appropriate.

On another, related note, I am thrilled to welcome Rebecca Muller, a former client of Wildfire’s and all around stellar interactive pro, to the Wildfire Strategic Marketing fold as Director of Client Service. If you haven’t already, check out her terrific blog – The Direct Approach – which is linked as well from my sidebar. Her contributions to this campaign have been much appreciated and welcome (if you have any questions about military blogs, or bloggers, she’s your woman!).

[photo credit: Appliance_Parts_Pros on Flickr]

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Roll with it: life’s a journey, so is the Internet

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Recently on Chris Clarke’s blog he stirred up a bit of controversy by posting questions and thoughts on the recent shakeups at new marketing company crayon, led by Joe Jaffe. I’ve been catching up on my feeds from the last couple of months and am a bit late to the party, but I mentioned to Chris I had some thoughts on the brouhaha and subsequent public chastisements. This post may meander a bit as I have many tangential thoughts that relate to this latest situation… apologies in advance. I should also state up front that all those to be named I have deep respect for and in some cases consider close friends… nothing personal, it’s just blogging.

Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Chris in the past and respect his contributions and perspective on the social media space and tools. I’ve also posted a thought or two about Jaffe on this site in the past (I enjoy his work for the most part and respect his expertise and risk-taking). And both Chris and Joe are my FaceBook friends. ;)

From my vantage point Chris’ post, outside the headline (although the “Death Watch: Yahoo!” series on iMedia Connection comes close), was not outside the norms established so far (I could go on about what defines norms and in what narrow niche, but suffice it to say I am speaking of the norms in the PR social media space for these purposes). Some of the follow up posts chose to focus on Chris’ age and experience while Mitch focused on the longtail of your personal brand’s reputation online (which I agree with on the whole). But the main theme appears to be (and that was the take-away by some of Chris’ peers): Chris is young and inexperienced, his tone was out of bounds and he and should not have challenged Jaffe on crayon as he doesn’t have the business experience to do so. The additional question appears to be how young professionals should interact in the blogosphere – should they be able to challenge the more senior professionals in the industry?

While I was catching up on this subject, I happened to run across an interesting post entitled: Does Lack of Gen-Y in Upper-Management Positions Hurt Youth Oriented Brands? And a comment by Ryan Holiday contradicting the notion that being young and controversial is a bad thing for your career. For the most part I find the Gen-Y post above a tad naive in its details, but valuable in its perspective.

The discussion also reminds me of the cringing feeling us old hats in the interactive space get sometimes about the newbies to social media who seem to think that Google and WYSIWYG’s are the sum total of the web and attempt to establish ‘norms’ for communications in Web 2.0 without the understanding that Web 2.0 tools and apps (Web 2.0 is in essence layman terms an add-on layer vs. a rebuild of the structure of the Internet) fulfills the promise of the “Write” in the original premise of the web as a Read + Write medium.

It also brings up how the pr and marketing communities view social media – do we “own” it, or are we learning and using it along with the rest of the world? How can we expect to communicate with our client’s or brand’s customers via this new and shifting channel if we immediately shut down a learning opportunity from a key demographic (Chris ~ Gen-Y), and a part of the same demographic who is currently helping to shape, beta test and build Web 2.0 applications and tools en masse? The early adopters if you will. What they have to say, and how they say it, is, in my opinion, important. Does that mean they are above critism themselves? Of course not, they are as much fair game as the rest of us in the wide wooly web. Anyone who has spent time on political blogs, entertainment or tech discussion boards knows the territory is fraught with flame wars and unpleasant conversations. It’s part of the landscape and if we hope to advise our clients and senior managers of the power and need for participating in the space we should take every opportunity to probe deeper and expand our knowledge. One of my favourite aspects of the Internet is how everyone participating is on relatively equal footing when it comes to our identities. If I choose to be gender or race neutral I can be so. The same applies to age. We are defined by what we contribute and communities online take many shapes and sizes.

Which also leads into practicing what we preach and setting a good example for the juniors amongst us to follow if we decide there must be guidelines within this particular niche online. I find it difficult to fault Chris for his post when those directly in his circle have set the example for ‘calling outs’. I’ve done it. So has Joe (with follow ups and a Facebook group), David (including some echo chamber in the comments), Doug (another Jaffe sighting), and Michael (who lived to tell the tale) to name a few of the more recent ones. Do I think any of those posts were out of bounds? Perhaps and if I felt strongly one way or the other I may have participated in the ensuing lively discussions… the foundation for expressing and communicating online. Do I feel differently about any of the people because of what they wrote? No, because even if I didn’t know each of them in real life and judge them by the sum of their contributions both online and off, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and means of expressing it as long as it isn’t abusive. However, I do think that each of the above examples are in line (in different ways) with what Chris posted in his piece.

Chris asked some provocative and challenging questions based on his take on the original premise of crayon, which included the merging of marketing, advertising and pr. PR is where Chris makes his living and with the departure of that crew he felt the company as launched was finished. Agree or disagree it is a valid take-away based on what the founders said when they started the company. It would also make for some great discussions surrounding integrated communications if we got past the initial dustup. Joe Jaffe responded to Chris, as was his right, and some crayon employees did as well (which really does prove they are active participants in the space btw). They took offense and told Chris so and his follow up post was great and further elaborates and expands on his rationale for posting. All in all a lot of great depth and insight all around. I’m glad Chris is thinking. We can all learn and grow, but I don’t think the questions he asked were out of bounds, at least not because he’s only been in the pr world for 2 years.

And this finally leads to the blatant truth about the ‘Net since the days before portals: Controversy drives traffic and links and traffic and links are the currency of the web. Chris was rewarded quite handsomely for his risk in the end.

But that’s just my opinion of course – you can always find a different one in Google. :)

[photo credit: chaztoo via Flickr]

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Day 1 of mesh 2007

I’m at the second version of the mesh conference as I type and it’s been an interesting morning. I missed the keynote with Mike Arrington, but made it for the always inspiring panel keynote with Tom Williams and Austin Hill

What Austin and Tom are doing online is truly inspiring and one of the key points I took away from their discussion was the notion of charity being absolutely conducive with UGC in order to engage and provide a sense of community to the donors. It isn’t just about being a credit card. (more thoughts about this later, and UGC in general)

The first panel discussion of the afternoon was “The Web and Politics” with Scott Feschuk, Garth Turner and Phil de Vellis (Phil of course being the paid consultant on the Barack Obama campaign who mashed up Apple’s ‘1984′ ad with a speech of Hilary Clinton). I have to say it was entirely more cynical than I expected and really take issue with the myopic view expressed by Scott and Phil. But then again, they are allied with specific campaigns, I suppose their view of what politicians and campaigns should be doing online is, out of necessity, tied to getting a vote from the “constituent”.

What struck me as quite narrow minded is the thought that most people who comment on blogs are stupid and should be ignored. Wow. I can imagine how well that thought would carry over into a townhall meeting for example. Yes, there are trolls who will always only seek to disrupt, but the majority of people are not and have views and opinions which shouldn’t be ignored. The web is not a giant press release, nor a news conference on CNN. Garth at least seemed to recognize and embrace that notion.

A common thread that emerged was that politicians would only want to use these new social networking tools if it could be shown they could persuade someone who may not have voted for them to do so. The panel was in agreement that it probably couldn’t be done.

Phil mentioned dailykos.com quite a few times as being a site worthy of attention by politicians, but went on to state that most of the commentators there (vs. those who post ‘diaries’ or in non-blog terms, articles) should be ignored as crazies. If that is the take of the folks advising politicians then I suppose it’s not surprising the candidates feel they can or should ignore what the voters have to say. Obama for example posted a highly contentious ‘diary’ last year on Daily Kos and when large numbers of the community disagreed with his position he and his staff ignored, rather than engaged, and subsequently appeared to alienate a hell of a lot of the American voters (who may be Democrats but hadn’t declared which nominee they would support for President) who took the time to post passionate comments in disagreement.

Does that serve the goals of the campaign? Maybe. Does it undermine any subsequent fundraising or outreach efforts Obama will need for his run? Probably.

Interesting discussion all in all, and it says a lot about the state of politics that a politician, Garth Turner, came off the best in the panel.

I may post updates to these thoughts as we go, but I’d like to hear from other ‘voters’ how they would like to see their politicians or candidates interact with them online.

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