Tuesday, June 5

Bribing Bloggers: Ragan's Grapevine

Michael Sebastian, writing for Ragan's Grapevine, resurrected Amanda Chapel's comments on camera-maker Nikon's "loaning" 50 bloggers a pricey new camera for 12 months. In Chapel's piece last week, she notes that that "most reporters, e.g. NYT, WSJ, BusinessWeek, Forbes, etc., can't even accept a free lunch anymore because of new ethics guidelines. The era of wining, dining and bribing reporters is long over."

Given this, the general theory is that companies are attempting to curry favor with "b" and "c" list bloggers, offering loans, gifts and payments for favorable reviews. The downside for a blogger is that when they accept a gift or loan, they take a departure from the world of journalism. Hmmm ... maybe.

Last December, I wrote a less than flattering piece on PayPerPost, just hours prior to a terms of service change that required bloggers to disclose that they were being paid for their reviews. Had the post been penned after the change, my take on it would have been different.

In such instances, disclosure can make all the difference (though I don't recommend turning every editorial post into an advertorial post or you'll likely lose your readers). The same can be said about the Nikon camera campaign. Any ethical breach is not in the loan of a camera, but rather in the blogger's willingness to be swayed by the loan or if the loan is conditional on a favorable review or frequency of a product mention.

It all comes down to the blogger (or reporter for that matter) asking themselves if they can remain objective despite whatever offer is on the table, Nikon camera "loan" or not. Only the blogger can answer that question. Because, in general, if we attempt to guess the ethics of others, we only demonstrate our own lapse in understanding ethics.

Journalists, reviewers and critics in particular, have always received new products and beta programs (or attended openings) so they could write editorial. The reward for remaining objective is simply a matter of preserving their own credibility as a reviewer. To do the same, bloggers only need to appreciate that credibility is their most valuable asset as well.

So while I agree with Sebastian and Chapel that skewing reviews for favors is unethical, bloggers without journalism or public relations backgrounds only need a reminder now and again that the best editorial is not for sale. Likewise, just because someone sends you something, it doesn't mean you are obligated to write about it.

In closing, I might also add that Ragan entered the social media scene in force. Ragan's Grapevine has been a great addition to communication blogging and its new social network Myragan.com is one of three social networks I think are worth checking out (I'm still wading the waters). The other two are Recruitingblogs.com and BlogCatalog.com.

I'm hoping to share why I think so sometime next week. And given the topic of this post, I might add that I wasn't paid to say that. Grin.


Monday, June 4

Inking Deals: News Corporation / NBC Universal

While CBS seeems to have slowed under the sheer weight of nuts sent by fans over the cancellation of Jericho, News Corporation and NBC Universal are speeding ahead with the addition of FUEL TV, Oxygen, SPEED, Sundance Channel, and TV Guide as content partners committed to bring programming to Web video consumers. The new deal was announced last Wednesday.

"Each of our new content partners have a reputation for creating premium entertainment experiences designed to fulfill television viewers' more eclectic needs," said George Kliavkoff, chief digital officer, NBC Universal and interim CEO of the joint venture. "We are delighted they have all agreed to contribute their compelling content to our venture, which will help ensure our ability to satisfy the more personalized demands of the growing number of Web video consumers."

Their plans are smart, very smart. FUEL TV and SPEED will distribute both partners' short-form content across the distribution network and host their programming on its destination site. The venture's distribution network currently consists of AOL, MSN, MySpace, Yahoo, Comcast, and CNET. The strategy seems a stark contrast to Joost, which looks great, but has come under increasing criticism that it is the slow road to developing Web television.

According to ReportOnBusiness.com, Joost has been further slowed by Viacom Inc.'s billion-dollar lawsuit with Google Inc. for "not doing enough to prevent copyright-protected content."

The slowdown was also made apparent a few weeks ago, when the new chief Internet strategist at CBS Corp. quipped to the Wall Street Journal that the network's ambitious Innertube project launched in 2006 should be renamed "CBS.com/nobodycomeshere." (Ironically, one of Innertube's most watched shows was Jericho and those fans aren't likely to come back until CBS gives the series another shot.)

The lesson to be learned practically flies out of the pages of Laurence Haughton's book, as recently summed at Recruiting Bloggers, "speed is the ultimate customer turn on." Don't obsess about perfection. Good enough is good enough.

Speed seems to be on the side of News Corporation and NBC Universal with their plans to feature thousands of hours of full-length TV programming, clips and movies, representing premium content from close to 20 networks and television and film studios. With the addition of CNET and Comcast, the new venture will include E!, Style, G4, Versus, and Golf Channel. The joint venture, NBCU/News Corp., will have offices in Los Angeles and New York.

We first alluded to some major changes in television back in August 2006. Now, in a little less than a year, the entire entertainment landscape is gearing up for major changes. When you add better content to the new technology due out this year, devices that allow people to watch programming whenever and wherever they want, it seems to me that TV will never be the same.

As NBC Universal's Beth Comstock said in April: “If you have great content … you’re always going to find distribution platforms.“ Of course, that assumes you don't cancel content people want.


Sunday, June 3

Firing Punchlines: Wal-Mart

If Julie Roehm thinks she has a wrongful termination suit after, er, allegedly breaching ethics policies, then David Noordewier, a former Wal-Mart cashier in Michigan, might get in line. He was fired for joking on his MySpace page that "the average IQ would increase if a bomb were dropped on the company's stores."

According to The Flint Journal, his bosses at the Shelby Township Wal-Mart store in Michigan weren't laughing. Noordewier said he was called into the office as soon as he arrived at work. Officials had him sign an acknowledgment that he was fired for "gross misconduct - integrity issue," which the company described as "theft, violent act, dishonesty or misappropriation of company assets," none of which Noordewier believes fits his situation.

The story says Wal-Mart spokesperson Kory Lundberg would not discuss the incident except to confirm he no longer works for Wal-Mart. Noordewier had a near-perfect attendance and exemplary customer service record, which included customer compliments. Unemployment officials now say Noordewier did not qualify for benefits because he had made a threat.

It seems to me that corporate might consider stepping in on this erroneous local decision. Firing employees for a single MySpace joke (though it might be ill-advised to use the word "bomb" and "employer" in the same sentence nowadays) is a blatant overreaction. The Shelby Township Wal-Mart store manager would have been better off talking to Noordewier rather than taking action.

Besides, this comes at the worst possible time while Wal-Mart is still attempting to perform damage control on its apparent appetite for snooping on, well, everybody. Its heavy-handed surveillance tactics were brought to light during the ongoing battle with Roehm.

Lately, it seems the only good public relations news for Wal-Mart is that Minnesota businessman Irwin Jacobs is suing Roehm. Jacobs, who owns a company that supplies Wal-Mart, says former Wal-Mart executive Roehm defamed him when she published statements about the relationship between his company and her former employer.

The new lawsuit comes after Roehm's ill-advised attempt to exonerate herself of ethical breaches by accusing other executives at the #1 retailer of ignoring company ethics policy too. Now that's a punchline.


Saturday, June 2

Understanding Viewers: TV’s New Consumers

Who are these people?

It seems to be the number one question being asked by people all over the world, including CBS. Who are these people that have sent more than 35,000 pounds of nuts to CBS and flooded executive e-mails and phone lines? Who are these people who can rally more 1,000 to 5,000 signatures a day, every day? Who are these people who have captured headlines in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times? Who are these people who dominate the Internet on blogs, forums, and BlogTalkRadio?

Who are these people?

They are students like my first fan contact Brian Kalinka in New Fairfield, Conn.; administrative assistants like Diane Roy in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada; business owners like Lisa Ludvicek in Overland, Kansas, and Debra Newman in Bonner Springs, Kansas; online talk radio hosts like Shaun OMac in Las Vegas; and radio operations managers like Clarke Ingram in Pittsburgh, Penn. People with diverse jobs, educations, incomes, and interests that all have found common ground in a television show called Jericho and CBS Jericho message boards.

“All of us were concerned about cancellation because word was that the show was ‘on the bubble,” says Ingram, talking about message board discussions just prior to the May 15 leak that the show would be cancelled. “The next day, May 16, Shaun OMac hosted what was going to be a ‘wake for Johnston Green’ show, but it turned into a discussion about the cancellation.”

According to Ingram, the radio show put voices and real names to the screen names that make up most message boards. They were real people, and it served to unify them to save the show. It also served to bring some ideas. Ingram is credited with being among the first to say “Nuts!” to CBS (he refutes this, offering up that dozens of other fans said it first); OMac suggested they put the words into action; and a Canadian fan, Jeff Knoll, quickly made arrangements with Jeffrey Braverman at NUTSOnline.

Who are these people?

They are a cross sampling of North America, 9+ million Jericho fans who enjoyed the show and feel unrepresented by Nielsen Media Research. Many watched the show as a family (as evidenced by many comments left on our blog alone). Some were CBS message board regulars. None of them seem to typify the definition of the cult following that they’ve been compared to since capturing the title of the biggest cancellation protest in history.

In fact, when you look at the events over the past few weeks, believe it or not, this entire movement happened very much by accident. Ingram’s original farewell post is a testament to this; it was meant as nothing more than a thank you to the actors, writers, and producers before CBS deleted 3,000+ of his posts and temporarily banned him from the message boards.

Since, they have transformed from an accidental gathering of viewers into a “can do” consumer movement with a very clear message to networks: television viewers do not have to tune into programs just because there is nothing better to watch (there are plenty of options). With hundreds of channels and dozens of recording and download options, we have become actively engaged consumers who expect more from the entertainment industry than copycat programming, sudden serial ends, and executives who lay blame on the viewers they need to entice advertisers to pony up multi-million dollar profit margins.

Who are these people?

You don’t even have to like Jericho to understand these fans or appreciate how they feel. If you’ve ever enjoyed any television program only to see it unjustly cancelled because someone didn’t look behind the Nielsen numbers, then you can empathize with this spontaneous uprising of support for Jericho. The only difference is that these viewers and others decided to do something about it.

And in the process, whether they win or lose (though I think they’ll win), they are changing the way networks think about their ever-increasing niche products. Maybe not CBS, but certainly NBC and Fox, both of which are placing less emphasis on the Nielsen numbers alone and more emphasis on listening to viewers. But isn’t that the lesson for every executive lately? Numbers are great, but without the demographics and psychographics behind them, numbers mean nothing. So who are these people? They are everybody.

“I've heard CBS is asking ‘where were these viewers during the regular season?’” noted Ingram. “We were right here, using online platforms that you provided … we were here, but not measured by Nielsen.”


Friday, June 1

Digging Jericho: Jericho Fans

This is an unplanned post, but I really want to give shout out to the fans of Jericho. On Tuesday, I wrote a post entitled "Marketing Jericho: Season Two" and the fans decided to digg it. They are not the only ones.

Since, the original post has popped up on some pretty unexpected places, including the wildly popular Fark.com, which is a news aggregator and an edited social networking news site. Every day Fark receives 2,000 or so news submissions from its readership.

Since I'm no power blogger by any stretch, I've found the results of your efforts pretty impressive and amazing. The one aforementioned post has been viewed 10,000 times since Tuesday. And that does not even count any other post related to Jericho. Considering the average blog reader shares what they read online with 3-10 people offline ...

More importantly, many of these 10,000 unique visitors were not Jericho fans, per se, so you've done a tremendous job continuing to promote your efforts to more people. It certainly lends well to Solution 2 in yesterday's post. It also demonstrates the sheer power of the fan base beyond the numbers we usually round up: almost 34,000 pounds of nuts (from NUTSOnline); almost $10,000 for Greensburg, Kansas; and 100,000 signatures. If you're new to this story, visit Jericho Lives.

With all these numbers, one might expect Les Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp., to pay attention and perhaps read my post on Frontline Communication to brush up on his reflective listening skills. But no matter. As I said yesterday, it's not the job of the fans of Jericho to convince CBS to want them, it is the job of CBS to convince Jericho fans to want CBS. Nuts!

Thanks again for all your comments. Just remember I don't think for a minute that I'm a hero. It's the opposite — you're the heroes and I'm your fan. Without all your hard work and countless hours invested, there would have been nothing about Jericho to write about (something I wish more journalists would keep in mind). Tomorrow's post will reflect that. Until then, all my best — Rich


Blogging: Frontline Communication

While I was working on a new blog for one of our clients, it occurred to me that social media (and blogging) is really a new form of frontline communication. If this is true (unless your company's blog skews more toward journalism or op-ed as a model like we sometimes do), then business bloggers might take more care to apply customer relations. Or maybe, the better term might be social media relations. Social media relations?

Sure, I know what some people might be thinking. Anytime businesses see "relations" after a term (eg. guest relations, customer relations, public relations, and certainly social media relations), then they think that the return on investment must be qualitative. And because quantitative results — anything with numbers — are always given more weight than their qualitative counterparts, "anything relations" will once again be dismissed or underestimated.

I wrote about this subject a few years ago, hoping to give more weight to customer relations as applied by concierges. Much of what I learned then still applies today. Yes, we know that direct response offers (or Nielsen ratings for that matter) are easily tracked: the number of redemptions equals success. However, as I said then, companies that neglect the integrity of their communication can also mistake such results as an accurate forecast of the future. They are not. Great offers and "spiked" show ratings only provide temporary fixes, not brand loyalty.

"It would seem a satisfied customer with an emotional bond would be worth more than one driven by other motivations, but some businesses forget to distinguish between the two," said Keith Sheldon, ABC, APR, a professional in residence at the University of California, Chico (when I interviewed him then). "A much more global view is to deliver high-touch service, recognizing the messenger is the message."

Today, years later, frontline communication is still the most important instrument to ensure customer satisfaction. So why not social media? When guests speak to employees (or bloggers engage an audience), the customer's perception of the company still becomes confined to that interaction. The results are the same. Scripted, rushed, uninterested, or negative employee responses create neutral or negative impressions even when their intent is to expedite traffic.

In contrast, customers have a high patience threshold while waiting in line as long as they see that the person in front is being treated extremely well. Employees who practice active listening—eye contact, smiles, and emotive statements—demonstrate such satisfaction because the waiting customer knows they will receive the same service when it is their turn.

"Reflective listening is always the next step in face-to-face communication," says Sheldon. "It goes beyond active listening by offering emotive statements and clarifying responses that demonstrate you understand the customer's needs. Asking questions beyond the immediate needs shows that you really care."

High performing companies have always recognized employee-customer relationships are emotional capital. It can be even be measured in terms of patronage, brand loyalty, and reputation beyond tangible results. Immediate measures can be identified in comments or response cards. Long-term measurements can be included in comprehensive evaluations.

In fact, with adequate measures, all "relations" can be shifted from an expense column into a business development column because they solidify trust, encourage repeat visits, and increase referrals. Just a few years ago, Waston Wyatt, a global consulting firm, launched its Human Capital Index, a study that included 400 publicly-traded companies to determine the relationship between human capital and shareholder value. The study revealed human capital can increase shareholder value by 30 percent.

When I wrote the article, Robert Bacal, CEO of Bacal & Associates and the Institute for Cooperative Communication in Canada, also told me that motivating employees to increase customer contact and satisfaction, or human capital, is critical to the success of any company. To do it, he suggested that companies invest in providing employees skill sets to make jobs easier and enjoyable. Skills that I think can be applied to social media.

"Some managers make the mistake of telling employees that customer service training benefits the company," he said. "It will ... but they also have to explain how it will benefit the employees on an individual level."

For example, teaching employees or bloggers how to deal with angry customers/comments might benefit the company because to reduce instances that have a negative impression on the company. But teaching employees these skills can also reduce the negative impact on the employee. I think we all know one angry customer can ruin our day (if we let it).

"When you tell people customer service techniques will make their job easier, it's more meaningful for them," said Bacal. "I also teach them a sequence of events they can remember called CARP."

CARP is one of several frontline communication techniques that I think can be applied to social media. CARP stands for Control, Acknowledge, Refocus, and Problem-solving. It reminds employees to take control of a situation by accepting responsibility, acknowledging the customer's anger, refocusing from a problem to a solution, and probing for ways they can help the customer.

By employing such a technique, it has been proven frontline employees can even gain a higher level of customer satisfaction with an angry customer than they can with the average customer. (Of course, for social media, this only works with "real" customers and not those that leave anonymous comments. They require a different approach.)

More importantly, as long as such communication is measured beyond numbers, it can demonstrate quantitative and qualitative results that move "relations" away from voodoo economics and more toward applied science.

For social media, that can be great thing because when you boil it all down, customer interaction is customer interaction. It does not matter where that interaction occurs: on the frontline of the checkout counter, on a customer service call, or on the Internet.

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