Messaging for man - or machine?

This blog was written by Brodeur Partners’ Jerry Johnson and Evan Parker. Jerry Johnson is head of Brodeur Planning. Evan Parker is head of Brodeur Digital.

We both spend a good part of our time at Brodeur helping clients figure out their messaging.

What are the key messages your audience needs to hear? What words, metaphors and images should you use to convey them? How do you structure your story so that it is relevant to the people you are talking to?

Recently, we were leading a client workshop going through an inventory of audiences.

It was a typical exercise. Who are our target audiences? What do they look like? Where do they hang out? What are the values and cultural norms that influence them? What matters to them? What do they find relevant?

As we moved through the exercise, we kept coming back to two questions: would the messaging be relevant to our target audience AND how would those ideas be filtered through the web “machine?”

Why? We interact with the digital world through its machines — specifically the search engines and web applications that people use to find our digital selves. Once found, you’ve only a few seconds to establish relevance and influence the individual – or your opportunity could be gone forever.

That got us thinking. What are the differences between messaging for people and messaging for machines? What do they have in common?

Both have dominant traits.

For people, emotion rules. We know from the latest behavioral science that emotion will always trump reason. Always. We are all less Spock and more Homer Simpson that we’d like to admit. So find the hot button. And step on it.

For machines, algorithms rule. Machines look for a “match” based on numbers and coefficients. For machines, you don’t appeal to the heart, you feed the formula. Decipher that and give it what it is looking for and your little bit of content will be found.

Both are predictable.

People, in the words of Daniel Aiely, are “predictably irrational.” They come to conclusions first and then look for facts and data to support them. At Brodeur, we map messaging through a relevance model built on the latest behavioral science where rationality is just one (small) part of how an individual responds to a word, an idea, an image.

Machines are predictably calculating. For them, predictive response is based on how fresh the content is, how well is it tagged, inbound and outbound links, etc. If you have the key characteristics of the content, you have a reasonable shot at predicting how well it will perform online.

Both can be “tricked.”

While you may not be able to fool everyone all the time, there’s no doubt that you can fool a lot of them for a short period of time. We live in Washington D.C. We know. We see it everyday. All tricks work, but few work for long.

The same is true for machines. Everyone knows the “10 ways to …” trick you can use to boost visibility of an article or post. Indeed all the search engines have a running battle with the SEO experts who are constantly trying to exploit the latest algorithms and then “trick” the search engines to get their content to the top of the list.

Both reward people who can “own” something.

In the world of branding, we refer to this as “differentiation.” We look for messages that will help establish some unique positioning of that brand in a person’s mind. In this differentiation, we make our case, and stake our claim in the landscape of thoughts, products and ideas.

Similarly, the online world rewards those who can establish an identity (or sometimes, a category) that makes you easily “findable.” For example, being found in the category of “marketing” is a big lift. Making a dent in the area of “search engine marketing” is more reasonable. And establishing a presence in the art of “tagging” in “search engine marketing,” even more so.

Both look for validation.

People generally don’t trust big institutions. Most hate marketing-speak. The most powerful messaging for people often is not from the brand, but is from a friend or colleague. Search does the same thing, but in a different way. Online, the validation comes from third-party links to your content, tweets, and references in blogs and chat rooms.

There is one big difference between man and machines. Machines don’t lead. They follow. Machines don’t make value judgments. They simply execute the algorithm. Machines typically don’t correct or pardon flaws, they expose them.

It is hard to get a machine to change its mind or form a new opinion. A good example is climate change. You can talk about climate change all you want, but if more people are searching for global warming, the web machinery can’t be relied upon to help people figure out the difference.

In today’s world we need to message for BOTH man and machine. If you don’t do it for the latter, you won’t be found. If you don’t do it for the former, you won’t be believed. Which means it’s time for us to dust off our 2000’s era passion for SEO, and rediscover the digital messaging age.


To differentiate, don't make these 7 mistakes

Most companies make the same mistakes when trying to differentiate their brand, products and services:

  1. They look inward, not outward – Differentiation isn’t about “making up” your company’s difference, it’s finding what objectively, authentically sets it apart. Understanding what customers / consumers need and discovering how your product / service fulfills them (or not) is the best place to start. Successful brands spur conversations and build movements.
  2. They don't engage – Despite all the lessons learned from social media, only 16% of companies fully integrate social media. Actively engaging with customers/consumers in a two-way dialogue differentiates brands from static, one-way communicators.
  3. They aren't bold – They pay homage to the God of Safe. Don’t speak colorfully. Never take risks. Don’t invest time expressing visually (with video, infographics, images). Why tell stories when you can recite facts? Always be business-like and never reveal a human side.
  4. They shy away from competition – This one always surprises me because at the C-level – and in the sales trenches – companies constantly sweat the challenges of competition, winning and losing deals. But instead of acknowledging the existence of competition, most companies shy away, acting like theirs is the only candy in the shop. Facing up to competition doesn’t mean companies have to name names or be arrogant. There are many ways to communicate differences in a professional yet more meaningful way.
  5. They aren't relevant – To become (and remain) relevant, brands need to fully engage sensory, social and emotional elements ... not just the rational. When something is relevant, the brand, product or cause becomes part of who we are. We self-identify and move from passive to involved, from indifferent to eager, and are willing (and eager) to act (buy, vote, recommend, etc.).
  6. They don't prove it – It’s one thing to convey competence; it’s another to offer up proof. Getting customers/consumers to express their views about your company/service in first-person language has a profound impact: it enables prospects to relate because they interpret your brand through a more personal lens.
  7. They don't focus on one thing – As companies attempt to zero-in on their customer-centric benefits, they compile long lists of capabilities and attributes. But they often fail to whittle all this down to one believable, sustainable advantage. Less is more – standing for one thing creates memorability.

6 reasons why social media didn't kill PR

There was steady chatter from 2007 through 2009 about the potential death of PR. Social media - the new game in town – might make PR irrelevant. Companies and organizations could now go direct, building their own conversations, communities and visibility.
Specialized social media experts (who were ahead of the curve in the early days) understandably trumpeted this view, leveraging the opportunity to directly or indirectly de-position PR agencies and professionals. Similarly, some journalists said PR’s traditional media relations centricity was a model for extinction.
In March 2009,Putting the Public Back in Public Relations” by Brian Solis and Deirdre Breakenridge was published, urging PR practitioners to master the art of listening, build meaningful relationships and leverage emerging social media. They educated and informed but also advocated quick, smart reinvention. They said PR practitioners should be brand/cause enthusiasts, “embedded in the communities shaping the future.” It was a needed call to action … and a wake-up for many.
Like many others, I shared my points of view along the way via blogs like Pitching is passé, What PR isn’t and Tired, faded and dead PR words.
As we enter Q4 2010, the heatedness of this debate has arguably dissipated. It’s interesting how much progress has been made. Six transformations triggered the shift:
1.       History repeated itself – remember when the www tornado caught many off guard in the mid-nineties? The communications industry was flat-footed. Web experts sprung to life - including specialized digital agency properties. For a period of time, specialists ruled – as they typically do in moments of change - to fill the knowledge vacuum.
2.       Agencies got religion –What occurred with the Web repeated itself with social media. Facing loss of relevance and revenue, many agencies, firms and communications professionals invested the time to question, listen and learn. They got smarter, broadened service offerings, aligned with experts and integrated across disciplines. Priorities and practices were re-shaped.
3.       It went from niche to mainstream – as time passed, organizations and companies also became more comfortable with social media. Ideas and initiatives that didn’t work (or make sense) were discarded; promising approaches were encouraged. As corporate and not-for-profit sectors got smarter, they ramped-up their own internal talent. Today, according to a June 2010 research study conducted by Digital Brand Expressions, 78% of companies are now using social media.
4.       Walls broke down –As the PR industry shifted from wide-eyed to eagle-eyed and as clients, companies and not-for-profits became more at ease, the early days of social media panic and pointing largely dissipated. Former adversaries let down their guards and began cooperating. This year, one of the first books on the subject “The New Rules of Marketing & PR” by David Meerman Scott was re-issued as a second edition, illustrating social media’s continuing maturation.
5.       Opportunity begat revenue – As social media transformed from emerging to embedded – and as knowledge increased - the revenue followed. An August 2010 Advertising Age article reported how social media is helping the public relations sector not just survive, but thrive.
6.       True public relations practices remained strong –the people who sounded the PR death knell were largely equating public relations with media relations. In that narrow zone, they were right. Traditional, one-way publicity is an old model that’s no longer relevant in an age of social-media-driven two-way conversations, communities and grassroots empowerment.                                        

But true public relations practice isn’t publicity. It’s much broader, taking into account every stakeholder (or “public”) with which an organization interacts: 

Strategically practiced, PR takes on a wide-ranging role, focused on earning a trusted reputation by acting in the best interests of these publics – not the organization’s own myopic agenda.

Social media is the latest expression of relationship building (a two-way model that’s far more inclusive and participative); other exciting new iterations will follow. Solis and Breakenridge were right, we’re the industry in the best position to “put the public back in public relations” and keep it there by never staying put.

The 6 mistakes companies make trying to differentiate

There aren’t many B2B companies that wouldn’t be delighted with a more differentiated brand position.
In an era where markets and technologies are zippily becoming commodities, the ability to authentically (and persuasively) spotlight a corporate difference remains a salivating need.

Why is standing out so difficult? Putting aside (major) issues like inferior products or insufficient market demand, most companies repeat the same common mistakes:

  1. They look inward, not outward – Differentiation isn’t about “making up” your company’s difference, it’s finding what objectively, authentically sets it apart. Understand what your customers/consumers want and discover how your product/service fulfills them (or not).
  2. They refuse to focus on one thing – As companies attempt to zero-in on their customer-centric benefits, they compile lists of attributes cutting across multiple vertical industries and product offerings. But they fail to whittle them down to a believable, sustainable advantage. Less is more – standing for one thing creates remembrance.
  3. Their messaging is neutral – Most B2B companies sound remarkably alike. They rely on an impersonal second-person voice; focus mainly on capabilities and product attributes; and share   too much detail. What happens? They convey a competent, but neutral, persona.
  4. They aren’t bold - This philosophy of brand neutrality pays homage to the God of Safe. Don’t challenge (Yikes!). Don’t speak colorfully (what if it turns someone off?). Never take risks (lest you offend). Don’t reveal human emotion (we’re a company!) Avoid expressing visually vs. textually (it’s so much work!) Recite facts vs. telling stories (safe!). Always be business-like, never lighthearted (they’ll think we’re not serious!).
  5. They shy away from the competition – This one always surprises me because at the C-level – and in the sales trenches – B2B companies constantly sweat the challenges of competition, winning and losing deals. But instead of acknowledging the existence of competition, most companies shy away, acting like theirs is the only candy in the shop. Facing up to the competition doesn’t mean companies have to name names – they can also successfully communicate differences indirectly.
  6. They don’t prove it – it’s one thing to convey competence; it’s another thing to offer up proof. Getting customers to talk about your company/service in first person language has a profound impact: it makes prospects and customers relate because it’s through their lens, not yours.

Apple's sour grapes bruises a stellar brand

Even the ultra-cool sometimes just don’t get it.

After a few haughty responses earlier in the week to complaints about its iPhone 4 dropping calls, Apple made a smart move and offered free cases iPhone 4 consumers. The cases will prevent the “death grip” problem that cause the phone’s reception to fade and sometimes drop calls if held a certain way.
But Apple CEO Steve Jobs apparently just couldn’t just hand out the cases and live to fight another day. Standing on a dais in front of an image that said “Antennagate,” he had to show a video illustrating problems with competing phones like the Blackberry. Then he insisted there’s nothing really wrong with the iPhone 4 – that the situation is a media creation.
“We're not feeling right now that we have a giant problem we need to fix,” Jobs said during a press conference at Apple’s Cupertino, Calif. headquarters. “This has been blown so out of proportion that it’s incredible. I know it’s fun to have a story, but it’s less fun when you're on the other end of it.”
Has Jobs grown too accustomed to the rainbows and unicorns he usually gets from the media? I have to wonder if his PR people warned him he’d look like a whiner if he complained about the press because that’s how he came off – defensive. The media did not, as Jobs intimated, create this problem. Apple’s arrogant response to customer complaints did. When customers got the high hat from Apple, they started complaining publicly through social media and the news media picked up on the story.
When are executives going to learn a little humility and contrition go a long way in situations like this? You’d think that coming so soon on the heels of Toyota’s and BP’s PR Armageddons that Apple, normally a PR-savvy company, would have had a response as slick as its products. Considering the vast reservoirs of customer good will it has to draw on, Apple could have snuffed this out before it became a problem. It might have had to eat a little crow by admitting its hot-shot phone had a flaw, but at least it wouldn’t be getting bludgeoned in the press at the same time.

7 reasons why "pitch" & "pitching" need to go bye-bye

“Pitch” and “pitching” aren’t going away … but they should. They’re so frequently used in agencies, corporations, not-for-profits and organizations they appear current, reasonable and viable. But they’re not. They should be retired immediately.
Historic usage, prevalence and pithiness shouldn’t supersede relevance or appropriateness. If it did, words like: colored, going steady, secretary, sissy, stewardess and mental would still be in wide circulation today.
Here are seven reasons why we should drop the pitch:

1.    It's a dated form of PR  media relations used to be one-way. We’d craft our “pitches” and try to sell them to busy reporters. Please Walt Mossberg, notice me, listen to what I have to say, and I hope (and pray) you write something. Those days are increasingly over. The world of top-down media dominance has been replaced with a never ending grassroots conversation that’s lively, engaging, empowering and direct to consumer/customer.

2.    It de-positions the PR industry – most of us have worked hard adapting to - and adopting – many historic communications transformations. We’re not there yet… (may never be), but we’re in a better place. We’re taking the PR industry to a new position where authenticity and transparency shape our practice – not hype and selling. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to go back.

3.    It damages our reputation – pitch and pitching sound old-school – pre-social media, pre-community – and they are. When we say these words, they immediately date us, forcing astute listeners to categorize us as “hit and clip,” “press kit” era PR dinosaurs.

4.    It’s one-way pitching epitomizes the old-world model of one way communications. Shut up and listen, I've got something to say. I'm the pitcher, here's the pitch … I'll wait and see if you catch what I've got to say … or not. Yes, the great “pitchers” of the past weren’t this crass … they’d initiate a conversation. But lots of people continue to push out their packaged ideas via Twitter, e-mail, Facebook, etc., never inviting or urging a conversation.

5.    It’s arrogant I don’t like it when a car salesman makes assumptions about me when we’ve never met. I don’t like it when a telemarketer reaches me at home to sell me something I’m not interested in. I don’t like it when people try to convince me to support an idea I’m not familiar with or don’t believe in. Pitching has all these attributes, and more.

6.    It’s a turn-off – this approach helped give PR a negative reputation, a perception often shaped by aggressive, fake, single-minded people trying to get their way vs. earning respect and building rapport.

7.    It doesn’t work – instead of pitching, let’s enter a two-way conversation, tell a story, listen, learn, invest time and treat people the way we like to be treated. We may not always get where we want to go, but we’ll build genuine relationships that have more lasting value.


BP triggers dark side for augmented reality

No sooner did brand managers and marketers discover augmented reality (AR) as the next big marketing frontier then did consumers find a way to use AR to voice their own opinions.
AR developers Mark Skwarek and Joseph Hocking are keeping BP’s feet to the fire with a new AR iPhone app that lets users visualize the Deepwater Horizon oil spill at their local BP gas station or wherever they happen to see a BP logo.
Called “the leak in your hometown,” the app transforms the logo into the source of the deep sea gusher. Just point your phone at the logo and your outrage and sense of futility over the unceasing disaster is rekindled.

If you’re new to augmented reality, it’s technology that overlay’s digital information and imagery onto your view of real-world things, typically using a webcam or smartphone camera as the visual conduit.
The BP gusher app is pretty simplistic as far as AR apps go. Yet it’s a brand manager’s nightmare. As the app’s creators describe on their blog … 
An important component of the project is that it uses BP’s corporate logo as a marker, to orient the computer-generated 3D graphics. Basically turning their own logo against them. This repurposing of corporate icons will offer future artists and activists a powerful means of expression which will be easily accessible to the masses and at the same time will be safe and nondestructive.
Remember back when brand managers first swooned over the potential of social media as a new direct-to-consumer marketing channel, not yet realizing how the technology gives consumers their own, sometimes critical, voice? With AR, it’s déjà vu all over again. Google ‘augmented reality’ and ‘marketing’ and you'll see what I mean. But the effusive praise by marketers will soon be tempered as they discover that AR can be a double-edged sword, as much a threat to their companies’ corporate reputation as it is a powerful marketing tool. 

Next BP victim: 'brand journalism'

The brand journalist is the one of the most compelling marketing concepts I've encountered in a while. Leave it to BP to spoil a good thing.

Read more from our CleanSpeak blog here.

Surprising job titles reflect changing times in PR and communications

For decades, the same titles were used for public relations and communications professionals in companies, agencies and organizations. These included Director, Marketing Communications; Manager, Public Relations; Account Executive; Vice President, Corporate Communications; Director, Community Relations; Publicist; Director, Government Relations; Account Director.
As our industry speedily reshapes itself – driven by historic grassroots empowerment, two-way conversations and brand building communities – so are the titles reflecting the jobs we do and responsibilities we bear. 

Consider, for example, some of the current PR & communications job openings:

  • Manager, Cyclical Communications (Target)
  • Director, Global Partner Communications & Engagement (Starbucks)
  • Director of Innovation (Netflix)
  • Director of North American Positioning (Novozymes)
  • Web Evangelist (Microsoft)
  • Chief Content Officer (PBS)
  • Social Media Manager (Milestone Internet Marketing)
  • Manager, Green Marketing & Wellness (confidential search)
  • Competitive Intelligence and Social Media Strategist (EMC)  
  • Online content & Communications Manager (Penny Saver/Harte Hanks Shoppers)
  • Senior Director, Internet Communications and Marketing (Save The Children)
  • Director Corporate Responsibility (Delhaize America)
While the classic job titles will stick around, there’s an emerging trend where companies, organizations and agencies are deliberately re-casting roles and responsibilities. How are the new titles different from the old? We see five transformations unfolding:   
  1. Some communications and PR titles are moving away from general functional descriptions (“communications,” “community relations,” etc.), shifting toward a more emotive position (innovation; evangelist, strategist, responsibility).
  2. New titles are embracing online community and consistent two-way communication (engagement, social media, cyclical communications).
  3. They mirror major societal changes (green marketing; web; wellness).
  4. Some of the new titles are trending big picture (positioning; global partner, competitive intelligence).
  5. Authentic, compelling & engaging content creation is central to branding success (the emergence of the Chief Content Officer).

5 reasons why "polymath" people & E2.0 technology are fueling a PR renaissance

Vinnie MirchandaniWednesday I experienced a cool one-two punch: Enterprise 2.0 & Vinnie Mirchandani.
If you’re not familiar with Enterprise 2.0 (E2.0) it’s an annual event focused on online collaboration/ social media tools that engage and transform people at work. (Full disclosure: one of our clients, NewsGator, is a leader in this industry).  
If you’re not familiar with Vinnie Mirchandani, he’s a former Gartner analyst, active blogger and author of “The New Polymath.”
What’s a “polymath?” It’s the Greek word for Renaissance Man (Vinnie needs to integrate an equivalent word for women). From DaVinci to Franklin, polymaths innovated the problems of the day; as Vinnie said, “they are good at many things.”
Vinnie was presenting at E2.0 because it’s a place where technology polymaths and polymath organizations hang out. Smart companies understand how a unified, communicative workforce outmaneuvers a fragmented one. Instead of keeping employees in the dark, or relying on outdated technologies like email to communicate, they’re embracing tools that foster meaningful collaboration. 

Vinnie said the characteristics of E2.0 organizations are these:

  • Ambitious community from day one – aiming for “enterprise” not a single tech category
  • People, more than machine, centric
  • Early adopter of social networks
  • Well connected around globe
  • Ethical – advocates for transparency
  • Media/PR savvy
He believes “polymathing” (if I can turn it into a verb) is the key to innovThe New Polymath by Vinnie Mirchandaniation because it encourages curiosity and “an openness to accept ideas from left field.” It also triggers the “building of widely-rounded enterprises” that are more adept at discovering new markets and technologies. Polymath thinking is helping our world tackle and resolve the “grand challenges” of our day.

Vinnie believes the world of E2.0 is creating a need for more “black swan” public relations as crises reveal themselves instantly and spread more virally than ever before. “Look no further than BP and Toyota,” he said, “it could happen to any of you.”

For communications professionals, branding gurus and PR experts, there are five takeaways:

5.  Good communications starts internally, not externally. Engage and empower your employees first – start there. Adopting new enterprise 2.0 technologies will help. 

4.  The functions of communications/branding/PR no longer reside within the confines of a “department.” These walls are breaking down and should keep breaking down.

3.  Communications 2.0 must be holistic, embracing the entire organization and all stakeholders. Communication experts can strategize, monitor and help shape, but “non-communication experts” will positively contribute to brand enhancement when properly engaged.  

2.  Transparency remains a vital idea, not a cliché. Top-down autocracy is dead. Two-way communication triggers curiosity and fresh ideas.

1.  Public relations is in an ideal position to catalyze this historic change. Remember what Vinnie said: the world of enterprise 2.0 is defined by organizations that are “people-centric,” “globally well-connected,” “advocates for transparency” and “media/PR savvy.” That’s us, right? 

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