Top Social Media Sins

I’ve been seriously under the weather after attending a meeting in Mexico City last week. (No, it’s not H1N1, though I did hear an excellent talk by the top docs in charge of public communication around the epidemic.) To make it easy on limited mental energy, I’m using a part of today’s MediaPost‘s Social Media Insider. It’s a confession of social media “sins” but could just as easily be about marketing or public relations.

I think we agencies, and even some clients, have been guilty of many of these so-called sins, and David Berkowitz’s clever but insightful post has inspired me to create my own “bible” for development of digital and social media programs. Though I’m not Jewish, I did appreciate the post-Yom-Kippur timing. (And I fasted…though it wasn’t exactly voluntary.)

We Have Sinned”

We have bribed consumers to be our friends without devising ways to connect with our real fans and sustain communication with them.

We have ceded control of our social programs to interns, or lawyers, or those who are not in the best position to be the faces and voices of our brands.

We have deceived ourselves, falling in love with our ideas without considering what would provide value for our target audience.

We have eavesdropped on consumers, instead of actually hearing them and listening to them.

We have failed to monitor social channels for discussions of our brands and competitors.

We have guessed at our target audience’s interests and activities rather than conducting research that could have provided real answers.

We have hurried into the newest, most-buzzed-about social spaces without developing a strategy.

We have imitated when we could have innovated.

We have mismanaged social marketing by shoehorning it into someone’s job description.

We have neglected to integrate social marketing with broader marketing programs.

We have shortchanged social marketing by planning campaigns instead of ongoing programs.

We have tuned out consumers’ criticism when we could have engaged with them to better understand it, or we could have learned from it to ensure other consumers wouldn’t have such problems in the future.

We have undervalued and underfunded social programs to such an extent that we have set them up for failure.

We have violated consumers’ trust by not being fully transparent as to our identities and objectives.

We have wronged consumers by not respecting their privacy.

We have xenophobically avoided any forms of social media beyond the ones we use ourselves.

We have yelled when we could have conversed.

And my own addition…I drank water when I probably should have stuck with tequila.

Etsy’s “Homemade” Ads Are A Hit

Just when I was about to write off the “crowdsourced” advertising trend as a fad…I happened to read about Etsy.com‘s consumer-generated commercial campaign in AdAge. The online crafts marketplace launched a contest among its own members for 30-second spots, and some of the entries are wonderful. You can view them and vote for your favorite handmade moment here.

Of course, you might expect  some extraordinary entries from people who are creative and entrepreneurial enough to market their own jewelry, crafts, and accessories on Etsy. It’s a wonderful community, but as with anything handmade, there’s a huge range in quality and taste. That’s why the homemade ads are such a refreshing surprise. They show the passion, creativity, and soul of the Etsy community in an effortless way. I can’t see a traditional creative team making it look so natural.

Yet, I still have big doubts about crowdsourcing. There’s no way the Etsy campaign is typical. In many cases, these kinds of contests are dominated by out-of-work advertising creatives (which I’m sure is the case with the Unilever Peperami sausage product that I blogged about earlier.) But, here the rules state that advertising professionals are ineligible to participate. There’s also a strong public relations component to the contest. All companies want to use their own customers as brand evangelists, but it’s unbelievably difficult to do that well, and with credibility. Here, it’s a natural fit, which is why throwing it open to this very atypical “crowd” makes for some terrific ads, and a well-crafted brand message.

Marketing Isn’t Getting Any Easier

It’s tough being a Chief Marketing Officer nowadays. It’s always been a high-risk role. Management tends to find it hard to gauge the bottom-line contribution, yet easy to place blame. In a recession, many businesses view marketing as a cost center, and it’s often the first budget to be cut. Then, too, everyone (and his spouse) thinks they’re an expert. It’s no wonder that the average CMO tenure at the top 100 branded companies is just 23 months, according to a study byrecruiting firm Spencer Stuart.
 
Like a lot of things, marketing used to be simpler. It involved creating a brand message, hiring agencies, and managing promotions. Today, the lines between advertising and other disciplines are blurring as traditional media is being eroded. The market is permanently fragmented, making consumers harder to reach, and resources are scarcer than in the past.
 
Of course, social media hasn’t just thrown a wrench into things because of advertising changes. BusinessWeek reports that customer trust – generally  the domain of the public relations function in  most companies – is becoming a much higher priority for the typical CMO. The reasons are obvious. There’s restrained consumer spending, the financial services debacle, and the rise of social media. A recent AdAge story describes a trend of chief communications officers taking on the marketing function in some instances. It seems a better way to control brand perception in light of the risks and opportunities that digital and social media bring.
 
To make matters worse (or better, depending on your perspective), some claim that, given the power of social media, marketing is all about customer service. That’s right, customer service is the new marketing.
 
Forget it. In my opinion, the rumors of marketing’s death have been, yes, exaggerated. True, poor customer relations has taken down some companies, and superb customer service has built brands as well. But, I think most marketing officers deserve more credit, and a more expanded role, than that of a glorified PR position joined with customer service. Don’t get me wrong, I think PR is a critical brand function, as is customer service. But, brand reputation shouldn’t be siloed. And, as tempting as it is to boil the big-brand magic down to one ingredient, marketing is a lot more complicated than that.
For every Zappos, there are lots of Krafts…large, multifaceted companies with well-established legacy brands and traditional distribution channels. Steering that kind of brand marketing is like navigating an ocean liner in changing weather – while it’s undergoing renovations.
 
One thing is true, which is that marketing and PR belong in the same boat. We face similar challenges. But, the double whammy of a poor economy and social megaphone is actually an opportunity for both disciplines. Hard times wreak havoc, but they can also force collaboration innovation, and creativity. The most successful corporate executives will leverage every resource at their disposal to drive both.

Will Healthcare Damage Brand Obama?

In “Mad Men”‘s season debut, fictional ad man Don Draper quietly advises a colleague, “Limit your exposure.” It’s actually an oblique reference to his associate’s indiscretion (and his own secret past), but I thought of Draper’s advice today in a different context. I’ve finally joined the ranks of those who fear that President Obama may be overexposed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m charmed by Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden, and even those famous Obama arms. The president’s advice to schoolchildren was fine by me. I don’t mind the magazine covers, text messages, Facebook updates, or even hearing what he thinks of Kanye West…no surprise there. But, I’m concerned about what some have called the Obama omnipresence in his full-tilt quest for healthcare reform.

Is Obama trying to be our first Omnipresident? This weekend, Mr.Obama will “road block” the Sunday talk shows with no less than five TV appearances in a go-for-broke attempt to win over the public on healthcare reform. He’ll also be the sole guest on Letterman Monday night. The appearances come after the president’s third “60 Minutes” interview and two televised speeches on the issue. The media filibuster is unprecedented for a sitting president, and it has sparked – what else – even more coverage about the president’s press schedule as a test of his star power.

As chief executive, Mr. Obama is clearly the issue’s best advocate, but I worry about the fatigue factor – or as we say in marketing, brand dilution. Healthcare’s a complicated, torturous, and risky issue. In a prominent story about a month ago, “Health Debate Fails To Ignite Obama’s Grass Roots”  the Times reported on the relative failure of the  president’s vaunted grassroots network to mobilize in support of reform. And some polls indicate that the more the public hears about the issue, the less support it gives to the president’s proposal.

If it were up to me, I’d add more surrogates to the White House healthcare outreach and more airtime to Congressional allies. But, as at least one (Republican) adviser explains on ABC News, “If you are not communicating, your opponent will be.” In the end, Mr. Obama has little choice but to keep slogging. I’m reminded of another industry maxim that I first heard before a big client presentation. “Tell them, Then, tell them what you told them, Then, tell them again.” With an issue as complicated and divisive as this one, maybe we do need the All-Obama-All-The-Time media offensive, or what the pols call “the full Ginsberg“. Here’s hoping it can achieve a successful – and civil – resolution.

Will Crowdsourcing Make Agencies Obsolete?

It sounds so easy. Instead of hiring a pricey ad agency or PR firm, just tap into the wisdom of the crowd to market your product. After all, they’re the ones buying it.

Crowdsourcing is being touted as the latest trend in creative services, from logo design to advertising.

Yet, most so-called crowdsourcing initiatives don’t truly harness the collective wisdom in the Web 2.0 sense. Not like the Netflix Prize or Starbucks’ virtual suggestion box. Most often, they’re contests. They dangle ten minutes of fame and a prize package for a public relations payoff and (one hopes) enhanced customer engagement. And, they’re usually the brainchild of the agency, and run by them, too. VitaminWater’s “flavor creatorFacebook app is yesterday’s M&M New Color Contest. Nice idea, but not exactly Wikipedia.

Recently, though, Unilever London shook up the agency world by adopting a crowdsourcing strategy not as a PR gimmick, but as a long-term move to spice up the marketing for its Peperami snack, which seems to be a Slim-Jim-style stick of salami. Peparami fired its agency and set up an open call for fresh ad concepts on the website Ideabounty. The winner will receive a $10,000 fee, and, the fame (or infamy) that results.

Even before the sausage incident, Crispin Porter Bogusky’s Colin Drummond wrote that crowdsourcing would commoditize creativity, warning his agency peers in a blog post, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

Others are sounding the death knell for creative services. You see, the decision wasn’t about quality of work. The ousted firm had done a bang-up job for over 16 years. The client admits that the extraordinary brand equity built for the product – embodied in a quirky animal mascot – makes this kind of user-generated initiative possible. That’s gratitude – and the agency business – for you.

Yet, I’m not sure the budget bite will be that big. No matter how you slice it, the Peperami campaign isn’t true, replicable crowdsourcing. It’s more like outsourcing to an engaged few –  in this case, probably out-of-work or aspiring copywriters. The unique circumstances and social media element give it some PR flavor, but to me, it seems like a creative way to downsize the budget, seasoned with a little dash of something new.

The other thing is this. The contest-as-crowdsource idea isn’t for every brand, or every situation. In fact, it can work for Peperami only because the brand foundation was already laid in the form of intrusive commercials and supported by millions in paid media over 16 years. It’s one thing to liven up a long-running campaign with a fresh execution, but another to come up with strategy, creative direction, and execution for a lesser-known brand, or in a vacuum.

Sustainable crowdsourcing to achieve innovation is self-limiting, precisely because it’s hard work. It also requires real collaboration and continuity – the wisdom of the true crowd in a spirit of continuous improvement — not a series of one-off competitions for a clever phrase. (And, at the end of the day, someone’s got to go through the thousands of suggestions and ideas, find the gems, and turn them into a dazzling, finished product…no small task.)

The idea that crowdsourcing will kill agencies based on a salami snack campaign is…well, baloney. In fact, it could be a win-win for all involved. If it does turn out to be a revolution in creative services, expect a new “Idea Economy” to follow. Despite changes in delivery channels, any kind of creative meritocracy is ultimately good for our business. The best rise to the top – and to a new pricing level and all that it implies. And then we start all over again.

In Defense Of The 9/11 Anniversary

It’s hard to forget what day it is, and not just because I’m writing this while waiting to board a plane. Occasionally I’ll glance up at a CNN monitor and catch video of President and Mrs. Obama observing the moments of silence earlier today, or glimpse the rain-drenched ceremony down at the World Trade Center site. The reminders are all around me, and rightly so.

So, I can’t quite understand the virulence of Jack Shafer’s disgust with what he calls “the 9/11 anniversary racket.” Shafer feels that the wave of features, columns, and commentary surrounding the day is “a media scam designed to exploit audiences by reviving memories — usually painful ones — to sell newspapers or boost ratings.” He indicts the press both for exploiting the occasion and for phoning it in, as well as us – the lazy, complacent public, who “crave the psychological stimulation that the familiar brings,” (a sentence that makes no sense to me.)

It’s true that many anniversary stories – particularly those around disasters, death, and tragedy – can be little more than sensationalized rehash jobs. But, I didn’t feel that way about today’s coverage.

First of all, it hasn’t been excessive. I’ve heard and seen more about this week’s healthcare speech and the distraction du jour, Congressman Joe Wilson’s heckling of the president, than I have of the 9/11 anniversary. Enough already.

The occasion is more than just a chance to open up the video vault and relive our trauma. It’s a legitimate opportunity to review the actions leading up to and resulting from the event, with the perspective of eight years’ time (Afghanistan, anyone?) Or, to check the progress (or disgraceful lack of it) on the WTC memorials, as the New York Times does in a restrained, but cogent editorial today.

We need reminders. Most of us lead harried lives, and our consciousness is increasingly divided. As writer Ryan Sager points out in a blog  post about Shafer’s rant, memory is reconstructive, not reproductive. We’re unlikely to recall something that happened an hour ago without a complex process of recalling and reconstitutionalizing it.

And, then, there’s the perspective and synthesis that only time can bring. We owe it to ourselves to think about what happened eight years ago, and not in a shallow way. Beyond the social and political consequences of the September 11 attacks, the anniversary’s commemoration in the media is a remembrance of how much was lost, and how much we still take for granted.

Could Review Fraud Kill Consumer-Generated Media?

Trust is a rare commodity these days. Consumers are skeptical of traditional institutions – and traditional marketing. Which is why I was a bit surprised by the results of the latest Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey. Apparently, most of us place our trust in “friends we know and virtual strangers.”  Ninety percent of the 25,000 Internet users surveyed believe product recommendations from people they know, and fully 70 percent say they trust anonymous consumer opinions posted online.

Now, to put the study’s results in perspective, the respondents don’t consider strangers any more credible than, say, a brand’s website, which also came out at 70 percent. But, online reviews are way ahead of banner ads or commercial emails. That’s impressive. Word-of-mouth recommendations are powerful, and on the Web, that power is magnified exponentially. Which is why PR and other firms have been known to fabricate product reviews on behalf of clients. Sure, we’ve all posted reviews as a favor to friends, or to support clients, but I’m talking about a more nefarious practice.

The latest case of review fraud, which came to light in a Mobilecrunch post about West Coast firm Reverb PR, may be just the tip of the Web iceberg. Reverb’s ethically questionable practice of having interns post five-star reviews on Apple’s App Store for its clients’ products, and the ensuing storm of controversy, got me thinking. This kind of thing is is rampant in the travel and restaurant categories, among others. It’s clearly wrong, and repugnant. But, ethics aside, will bogus reviews ruin peer commentary on the Web? Could consumer-generated media go the way of Nigerian money scams?

Here’s hoping it may not be so. First, people are getting smarter about comments and reviews. They’re learning that anything that seems too good to be true usually is. (Note to online astroturfers: mix in a few mild criticisms and knock off half a star every now and then…it looks better)

More importantly, I have to believe in the wisdom of the crowd – the real crowd, that is. Bogus reviews – no matter how glowing and skillfully done – can only work in the short-term. If the product isn’t up to snuff, or if it’s truly inferior, the disappointed customers will let it be known. As any customer service rep can tell you, unhappy customers tell many, many more people about their experiences than do happy ones.

Finally, it may be that we’re conditioned to believe what we read online because of the vetting role that journalists have played. As more people become aware of review fraud and other questionable practices, the need for credible, impartial, and properly vetted content will increase. That won’t knock out honest consumer-generated content, but it just may shift the balance back to favor the “traditional” editorial role.

Maybe the Web isn’t really so different, after all.

Why Agencies Shouldn’t “Chase the Lion”

Once, as I was beating my brains out all weekend to come up with fresh program ideas to try to win a new business pitch, my husband offered to look at my draft presentation. (He’s not a PR guy but has learned enough through osmosis that I value his judgment…and, frankly, there’s a point when no one else will listen.) He handed the deck back to me and shook his head sadly. “Your business is crazy, you know. You do your best work on spec.”

So true. Of course, it’s necessary and normal in the agency business to offer top strategic thinking and creative ideas to win clients. And, even when you come out on top, the client may not choose to use the winning program ideas…often it’s an elaborate test of creativity and chemistry. But, at the time, his words triggered one of those moments of clarity that usually come from an objective source. My insight was that I couldn’t let potential clients suck the energy or drain the creativity from those who are paying us for our best work every day. I still think about his comment. It’s a reminder to stay balanced.

I thought of it again when I read about the recent brouhaha over the “fake” World Wildlife Fund ad created by DDB Brasil. The ad is a doozy. It depicts planes flying towards the World Trade Towers in an image that can only evoke one thing. The copy reads, “The tsunami killed 100 times more people than 9/11. The planet is brutally powerful. Respect it. Preserve it.” A powerful ad, also.

More than they knew, of course. The ad was picked up by the media and blogosphere and resulted in a tsunami of controversy for both client and agency, eventually making Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” segment on MSNBC. But the furor only started  because of the ad’s poor taste in tying 9/11 to a commercial message. After a denial by the WWF that it approved the ad (which later turned out to be untrue) and repeated flip-flops by the agency about its status, AdAge reported the facts. It turns out the ad ran one time in a small local newspaper, then was submitted to the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival in June.

Underneath the embarrassment, poor crisis management, and bad PR for the agency and the WWF, there’s a shadier aspect to the tsunami ad. It’s bogus. It seems that running an ad only once, in an obscure media outlet, is a common tactic to make it eligible for major industry awards. The fact that the One Show advertising awards has just moved to ban “scam” ads from its competition, and that people are saying it comes years too late, is a sad indicator of the machinations agencies pull to win business. Because, make no mistake, that is the point of the awards.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to promote your firm’s work, and it’s certainly not limited to the advertising business. But, the incident shines a light on an unethical practice. And, it’s a reminder that third-party recognition for sexy, “breakthrough” work is not only an exhausting, Sisyphean goal, it’s the wrong one. Most of us would do better to put that creative talent and energy into work for our existing business…work that may not win national awards, but that actually sells products, raises funds, or otherwise gets the job done for clients.

How To Buy Friends And Influence People

Maybe money can’t buy you love, but these days it can buy friends…at least, of a sort. I was interested in Web traffic company uSocial’s recent announcement that it will offer packages for Facebook that start at 1000 friends for as little as $177. Overnight, a faux network….who knew friends came so cheap?
uSocial, which boldly calls itself “the world’s most innovative advertising company” has already built a reputation for itself, although I wouldn’t call it one for innovation.

It touts a dubious press release “distribution” service on the social Web, and it claims to sell packages of Twitter followers 1000 at a time. Although it’s vague about its search methods (something about targeting users with similar interests), it seems no different from the software packages that target thousands of users with indiscriminate follow invites. In other words, spam. Twitter has tried to have it shut down, so far without apparent success.

(Somewhat more innovative than its Twitter carpet-bombing is uSocial’s approach to popular bookmarking sites like Digg. It lets advertisers buy votes in hopes of driving traffic to their bookmarks and sending their links to sections that get the most visibility.  But I digress.)

With Twitter’s follow model, where anyone can follow anyone, and it’s hardly worth the trouble to block spam-bots, this kind of stuff is expected. But, a Facebook invasion’s more significant given its size and permission-based friend set-up. It’s bound to make users more wary, and Facebook, naturally, has denounced it.

uSocial’s shady methods have elicited the usual firestorm of criticism on sites like Mashable, but it’s amazingly open about its goals. This is in contrast to other, cleverer social marketing scammers who fly under the radar to avoid being shut down or blocked by legitimate sites.

And, maybe its methods aren’t ao new. One commenter described a Japanese practice known as benri ya san. Literally “handyman,” the expression can refer to those who are paid to show up at weddings, funerals, and other social gatherings in order to build up the esteem of the host. In other words, rent-a-friend.

It may be a time-honored practice, but junk by any other name is still…well, junk. It threatens to skew the social media space with bogus accounts and spammy offers. It’ll probably be the last straw for a few fed-up Facebook users. But, mostly, I feel bad for the real victims of the scam, who are any clients willing to pay for social  Web prospects by the bucketful. Money might buy friends, but it won’t get you long-term engagement.