Tuesday, June 19

Revisiting Human Capital: Social Media

Yesterday, when I wrote about David Meerman Scott's book, something stuck in my head: social media is a medium about people. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized why it stayed there. It reminded me of an article I wrote some time ago about human capital.

Human capital is nothing new. Borrowed from economics and broadened to reflect human potential as an asset, it has been contemplated by organizations for more than a century. It has also been proven to be critical to success and tied to shareholder value. (One Watson Wyatt study concluded that firms with high employee commitment averaged three-year returns of 112 percent while those with low employee commitment averaged 76 percent.)

Back when I wrote the article, I was asking experts if human capital was so critical, then why do companies lay off employees anytime increased competition cuts into profit margins, economic conditions deteriorate, or a crisis occurs. While some people pointed to the concept that layoffs are “just part of business,” I found another answer all together.

While there are times when there is no other option than downsizing (eg. a high growth company over staffs), most companies have another reason for laying people off — they don’t know who their employees are, which makes them expendable.

“Executives and managers pursuing their MBA are not taught people skills or how to manage employees,” James Lukaszewski, one of the most prominent advisors and crisis communication strategists in the country, told me then. “In most companies, there is a clear division between management and employees.”

The division, more often than not, is non-communication. Employees do not have a clear understanding of what they are supposed to do and, from executive management to key supervisors, no one knows how to tell them.

“Negative communication is non-communication,” he said. “Managers and supervisors are so busy telling people they did it ‘wrong’ or ‘that’s not the way we do it,’ they forget to tell employees how to do it, if they say anything at all.”

Rather than evaluating employees on what they did wrong or focusing on what they did not accomplish, Lukaszewski said companies are better served by applying positive communication that clearly defines what to do next. If they know where the department or company is going and what they can do to get there, it will produce more positive opportunities for the future.

“Yesterday is over. And frankly, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Companies that will succeed are outcome forward. It’s human nature for people to want to please their supervisors so it’s up to supervisors to show them how to do it.”

We then went onto discuss employee evaluations (noting, at the time, less than 40 percent of employees received meaningful evaluations because they were outdated, did not reflect job descriptions, or were misunderstood by supervisors). But that drifts too far off topic to share as this post applies more to social media.

If you’re a communicator or public relations practitioner who wants to embrace social media but cannot seem to find any executive support, the first step is education. Much like their own employees, most executives have no idea who bloggers, vloggers, and podcasters are because they’ve gotten it into their heads that they are bathrobe experts with blow horns, not to be taken seriously.

Sure, it used to be that way, but not so much anymore. Everyday, I see more and more experts breaking into social media because they are beginning to understand that this medium is about people.

Why should executives care? Well, it seems to me that some bloggers are starting to understand employees, consumers, and even shareholders better than most companies understand these publics. And unlike journalists, some bloggers could care less about being objective or sourcing two sides of the story.

How is that relevant? For companies that do not have a social media presence today, it's more than relevant because if the company doesn’t understand or have the ear of its employees, consumers, and shareholders, then certainly, someone else will (most likely someone in social media).

Currently, most companies treat bloggers just like employees. They ignore them, until the blogger writes something they don't like. Only then will the company address what the blogger wrote to say it was ‘wrong’ or ‘that’s not the way we do it,' as if to imply some secret method to the madness exists behind closed doors (rarely).

That's backwards thinking and I'm not surprised. There are plenty who like to pretend product and price is the end all to everything. In fact, these are the same folks who think backwards about media too. (Please write about us when we need help promoting a product, but kindly stay away when dark clouds loom on the horizon).

Instead of ignoring social media, companies might consider that the social media represents a great communication tactic to reach people in various publics and, if done correctly, better tap into the idea that human potential is an asset, inside and out.

There are several ways to do this with social media: establishing a direct connection with employees, better understanding consumers and motivating them in way that they assist in marketing efforts, or considering that the double-edged single-view sword of blogging can work for a company as much as it can work against it.

Ergo, if social media is a medium about people, it might be time to consider how social media could enhance human capital. But, of course, this assumes you have the right message to communicate anyway. Unfortunately, most companies and organizations are still struggling with that. (Hint: what consumers, employees, and shareholders value is almost never what top executives value.)


Monday, June 18

Making Rules: David Meerman Scott

When David Meerman Scott first posted his long list of thanks to more than 150 bloggers (myself included) for adding something that influenced his book, The New Rules of Marketing & Public Relations, different bloggers had different reactions. They ranged from gratitude and excitement to bewilderment and feelings of obligation (some even called it “obligatory” in their headlines).

Before I toss in my one-and-a-half cents on Scott’s book (it’s more commentary than review), I want to briefly address the latter. Obligatory links, posts, comments, and reviews are a myth. Nobody has to write about anything they don’t want to. Just because someone sends you something or mentions your name doesn’t mean you owe them anything.

Sure, Scott’s original thank you post was part sincerity and part promotion, which certainly has its place in the world of social media. Only Scott knows how much he leaned toward one or the other. In doing that, it was interesting to watch how some people responded to it. Some posted links to everyone mentioned, some did not, and some (like me) tried to find a happy medium (I added the links in a comment because this blog was not well suited to include the list in my post). I did it because I wanted to; no other reason.

That said, there’s only one reason I have something to say about Scott’s book: it has merit to have something said about it. (Never mind the gracious inscription on the advanced copy I read, which I appreciated.) Scott did something with his book that is not easy to do. He hit the fast-moving target that is social media in such a way that his book will actually have shelf life.

I know it’s not easy to do this because when I look back on my first social media PowerPoint presentation (mostly blog focused) from 2005, I know that most of it has become but a snapshot of living history. Yep, time travels ten times as fast on the Internet.

But Scott finds the middle, offering up a mix on social media rules that will change and some that will not. In that way, it succeeds especially well in giving those interested in social media a crash course in catch up.

Any company interested in becoming more customer-centric owes it to themselves to take a long, hard look at social media because this is a medium about people. While some claim the risks are too great (because there can be unexpected consequences) and the reward too small (what does it do for sales, they ask), Scott makes the case that social media will soon be as common as a Web site, assuming it doesn’t profoundly change Web sites all together with added features. Right. Anything and everything from niche social media networks to full-length company-focused video programs.

The real benefit has been and continues to be a chance for companies to interact with consumers directly. Those that want to win with such an endeavor only need to conclude a few things — including that solid content will win over spin every time.

Done right, Scott says you can reach niche buyers with targeted messages for a fraction of the cost. Personally, I don’t think social media can replace every element of an integrated campaign. It’s a tool not a strategy in and of itself. But this idea is one that will permanently stick by year’s end.

Here, I’ll infuse one of my talking points on social media as an example. If you compare one post that attracts 10,000 to a direct mail piece that attacts the same number, assuming we use the lackluster 2 percent response rate on direct mail (our company does better than that average, hitting somewhere between 7-50 percent, depending on the company, offer, target, etc.), the cost savings is impossible to ignore. For the two hours it takes to write a planned post for a client, it would take 500,000 pieces to generate the same amount of traffic. At $1.50 to $2.50 per piece, what is the smarter investment? (And no, I’m not suggesting we dump direct mail completely.)

For public relations, where the best approaches are still being debated (as if it isn’t clear), Scott says that the audience is no longer a handful of journalists but millions of people on the Internet. He’s right there too; there is even a hierarchy of sorts and companies need to find the right mix of consumers, various bloggers, and journalists.

As Scott points out, bloggers tend toward promoting a single viewpoint as opposed to journalists who attempt to avoid their own views and focus on the views of others (bias aside). It’s one of the reasons I’ve likened blogs to op-eds as rather than reporting (though some of that exists too). Naturally, some are just diaries, etc. but more and more people are asking if anyone just blogs anymore. (Less and less, it seems to me, which is a shame.)

There is good and bad in this singular viewpoint. The best of it fills a void created by a growing group of journalists who think you always need two views. You do not. In fact, I still think the best journalists shoot for the truth, and sometimes that means two sides aren’t needed. (Do we really need to find wingnuts on either side of the issue every time?)

If Scott falls short anywhere in his book, it might be in that the choir of social media believers doesn’t fit the primary target audience. Sure, social media experts and seasoned bloggers could pull hundreds of post ideas right out of this book, but much of what is here can be found, well, from the blogs and sites many of us visit (including Web Ink Now). Yet, I’m the first to admit that Scott’s book was desperately needed, and only hope those who haven’t tested the social media waters will have the sense to pick it up.

Another area where my praise becomes a whisper is in the potential for some people to mistake excellent tactical examples as some semblance of a strategy or strategies. I hope not. It’s something to keep in mind if you are among the greater body of traditional marketers and executives who thought social media was a fad (some still do) but are now terrified that you somehow missed the train (don’t worry, there’s more than one stop on this ride). Instead, think of this book as a tool that will help you get your arms around many interesting ideas being tested today.

In sum, Scott’s book is snapshot of what is happening right now. It provides enough content to help convince executives that entering the sea of social media is worth the investment. It can bring traditional communicators up to speed. And, it can give experienced bloggers content ideas along with a roundup of details in case they missed one.

I like it enough to add it to our book shuffle weeks ago. It will stay there, at least until something better comes along, probably by Scott himself.


Sunday, June 17

Rolling Clovers: The Black Donnellys

When I first wrote about Jericho being cancelled (at the urging of my wife and company team members), it was because they proved to me with pre-post research that CBS had a crisis in the making. (One of the things we do here is help people facing a crisis communication situation.)

The Black Donnellys doesn't really seem to have that element for NBC. It's not very clear the fans can bring the show back (though someone spiked Wikipedia with a rumored return). And it's not even clear that the fan base is a mile deep in clover as Jericho was with nuts (but they are good people). So why write about it?

Well, I've been turning it over for a few days and decided it provides an interesting contrast to the Jericho story while links to the fan dissatisfaction over the The Sopranos ending. I'll get to that in a minute, but need to drop in a quick backgrounder for those who have no idea what I'm talking about.

The Black Donnellys only aired on NBC from Feb. 26 to April 2 before it was "demoted" to an Internet series (one day, very soon, such a move will not be a demotion) over poor ratings. It was replaced by the Real Wedding Crashers, which convinced me why I needed a DVR (so I don't have to rely on network lineups). The net result was that Donnellys was officially cancelled.

There seems to be little doubt that the Donnellys failed because of its marketing. Thinking back, I never really got that it was about an Irish crime family pitted up against Italian mobsters in Hell's Kitchen.

Unlike Jericho fans, Donnellys fans seem most interested in lobbying HBO to pick up the show than convincing NBC to reconsider. Sure, they have a petition for NBC, but HBO is the target of shamrocks, quarters, and crackers.

What makes this interesting is because while Jericho fans did make an appeal to TNT, they mostly focused on CBS (and only picked one primary item to send beyond postcards and letters). So while anything is possible, I think moving a show from one network to another seems very daunting, perhaps even more so than resurrection.

Why it would work for HBO. HBO is better suited for a crime family story than a prime time network because there are fewer restrictions on the grit. HBO also just wrapped The Sopranos, whose viewers could potentially be converted from Italian to Irish family fans (and maybe even quell fan anger over The Sopranos ending, especially if they found a way to link the shows for some crossover). And then, of course, there is an existing loyal Donnellys fan base, which isn't bad considering the show didn't have a full season.

Why it wouldn't work for HBO. HBO is all about original programming. Of all the networks, it seems the least likely to pick up someone else's marketing miss. The idea that The Sopranos fans could be converted might backfire, making it even worse for the network (not to mention, the Donnellys would forever be compared to the predecessor). And, most importantly, one has to wonder how long a show can be wrapped before a revival is impossible beyond a made-for-television reunion movie.

To me, the best bet for the fan base is to keep doing what they are doing. Promote the series at NBC online, which has a great streaming setup with limited commercials. And, drive the numbers up on the HDNet reruns. While I’m a big fan of intermixing qualified research with quantified research, most networks are still about numbers (and playcating critics). Go Irish!

In closing, let me remind everyone that it won’t be long before there is nothing to distinguish digital media from traditional television. When that happens, and it will, there will be more changes than anyone imagined. I’m confident programming and the measure of it will only get better while giving independents a leg up.


Saturday, June 16

Promoting Jericho: Fan Buzz

Since reversing its decision to cancel Jericho, CBS has entered into a developing partnership of sorts with fans. The network released the summer rebroadcast schedule for them to promote (9 p.m. Friday, July 6), requested input on the Jericho boards (hint to CBS: see NBC's Heroes), and engaged some fans with direct participation.

Keep in mind, it has only been 10 days since Jericho was resurrected (even though it feels much, much longer). How are the fans doing? Not bad. Slowly, there has been some semblance of organization, but overall, the focus seems to be on ideas (even on the CBS message boards). So, we thought it might be fun to highlight a few ideas that stand out and skip on organization for now, hoping things don’t become more fragmented.

Fan Ads. "Rubberpoultry," who has designed several ads and banners for Jericho fans, has become a central contact for promotions. He designed the ad above, which has great graphic merit despite missing a bit on the message. While the message appeals to fans, the copy would be better served if it was written for non-fans, providing a better call to action (same with the banner). Don't get me wrong though, it's among the best of the best. For a fairly comprehensive roundup of images, scroll to the bottom of this Jericho page.

Fan Radio. If anyone earned the moniker "voice of the fans," Shaun O Mac nailed it. Enough so that CBS flew him out to meet some of the stars (Skeet Ulrich, Brad Beyer, Richard Speight, and Bob Stephenson) and Carol Barbee, executive producer of Jericho. CBS filmed some of the tour; and the footage is rumored to be made into a video news release or perhaps make the DVD. On June 10, Shaun invited me as a last-minute guest on his show. It was fun, but Jericho fans will likely enjoy some earlier shows with several of the Jericho's stars and Barbee. Shaun's someone to watch, er, listen to when he talks Jericho or not.

Fan Forums. While most fans seem to use the CBS message boards as a focal point, I still think Jericho Rally Point is better suited for fan business (unless fans want CBS to usher in the fan club). NutsOnline also launched a Jericho fan forum with the best idea there to break up the forum into states, similar to an effort on Yahoo Groups.

Fan Groups. Speaking of fan groups, Lisa Lludvicek has done a solid job communicating and coordinating some efforts in Kansas, including her promotion of 11 viewing parties before the debut of the second season. The viewing parties, held at Governor’s Stumpys Grill Kansas City, are purposely not held on nights that CBS airs Jericho. They do provide fans an opportunity to meet each other, rally more viewers, and raise funds for Greensburg, which was devastated by tornadoes.

Fan Blogs. Several blogs have sprung up and JerichoOnCBS is one of my favorites. Lisa Coultrup (kystorms) has done a solid job keeping up on the news and adding some great round-ups, including: letters from producers and celebrities, and various online contact points. In many ways, she’s providing a centralized round-up that forums just can’t deliver (check out rubberpoultry's Star Wars/Jericho parody there!). Another blog, Jericho Monster, provides a broader view, which includes conversations about the Nielsens and a link to the Black Donnellys petition.

A few other ideas that deserve mention are the pursuit of the Guinness submission and the Jericho Saved site by Jeff Knoll. The latter includes a great summary of his media tour with Lennie James (that was as brilliant as the purposefully stark nut ads Knoll produced).

So, assuming the fans still have an 8-9 million viewer base to work from, they only need 3 million more viewers to have a hit show or close to the top 20. It's doable. It seems to me CBS is doing its part on several levels, making me seriously doubt those rumors that the new seven episodes were nothing but a ruse to end the war. I think CBS has decided it might as well go for a winner with Jericho. Kudos to them for doing what appears to be a 360-degree turn on how CBS sees its viewers.

That's not to say the story is all hugs and roses. Far from it. Some fragmentation, duplication of efforts, and the lack of a solid message targeting new viewers are all working against the greater effort (before it was nuts, but nuts doesn't seem like the right message anymore). It's not surprising; protests are always easier to grow than a fan base. To her credit, Schumi has done some good in delegating "idea" categories to willing volunteers. While I wish it would have been done a bit different, it's still a step in the right direction.


Friday, June 15

Going Social: MyRagan, RecruitingBlogs, BlogCatalog

Social networks and online communities deserve consideration for just about anyone hoping to have a presence on the Internet. They come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from headline roundups and forums to search directories and profile pages.

Although there are hundreds to choose from, I'm mentioning just three today because they demonstrate very distinct approaches. For lack of a better definition, let’s call them a closed niche membership, open niche membership, and open general membership.

MyRagan.com. MyRagan.com has corporate communication and related professionals, especially public relations practitioners, buzzing with excitement. It uses the Me.Com platform, which allows people to “rapidly deploy, customize and administer a social network specific to their interests.” Maybe.

I call it a closed niche membership because MyRagan.com does not really allow for easy navigation throughout the Me.com network. So, in many ways, it’s self-contained. It’s also extremely niche specific, so much so I that I’m not sure if a non-communicator would get it.

Stand Outs: MyRagan has a built-in audio-visual chat and IM features. It also has a direct link to the Ragan Career Center. Mark Ragan and his team are working very, very hard to make this work, recently asking for five or six volunteers to provide ideas for improving the network. The members, the ones who aren’t lost, are very helpful. I was also able to add my widget to my in-progress profile page. Cool.

Stand Offs: MyRagan is a navigational nightmare, especially because it toggles back and forth between MyRagan and other Ragan Communications sites. One also has to wonder how much is too much. There are forums, bulletins, discussions, groups, community blogs, personal blogs, and ... yeesh! To quote Geoff Livingston at The Buzz Bin: “It’s not the most aesthetic site, but it’s very, very functional.” (It is functional if you narrow your focus to a few features.) Now, if we can only teach social media newcomers what to blog about so the community blog doesn’t die off as a “promo post” board.

RecruitingBlogs.com. RecruitingBlogs.com was created by Jason Davis after he, um, retired from Recruiting.com. It’s everything a niche social network should be and opens to the Ning platform. Bouncing around Ning helps you connect with people in many fields and industries.

Thus, in many ways, RecruitingBlogs.com is an open niche network. It’s laid out extremely well as everything is on the front page, including scrolling RSS feeds from every recruiting blog on the planet (that’s worth reading) and then some. Keep in mind though, not all Ning networks are created equal; Davis really knows his stuff.

Stand Outs: RecruitingBlogs.com not only benefits from an expert network creator, but also an experienced group of recruiters who blog. Many of them have had blogs for two years or more. They also make up some of the best read blogs on the Web, which means most content is razor sharp. It is a niche model to be followed, pure and simple. To check out the greater Ning network, click one button. Done.

Stand Offs: Not much, unless you just don’t like recruiters (I do). While I know Davis is not able to do everything he wants to do on Ning, most people would never know it. Seriously, other than the occasional lag and maybe a missing “about page” or “highlighted features page” for newcomers (eg. I know what the chatter wall is good for on my profile, but newcomers might not), I love it.

BlogCatalog.com. BlogCatalog.com is the fastest-growing social blog directory for a reason. It is completely open to anyone and, as long as your blog is approved (about 48 hours unless you have questionable content), you’ll be able to meet some wonderful people.

BlogCatalog.com is also different from the aforementioned niche networks because it owns its own technology, features, and widgets. Antony Berkman bought a dying directory six months ago and turned it into a company worth watching.

Stand Outs: There is a real benefit in having a general open network because the skill sets of the staff and membership are deep. The newest feature is brilliant, making it the first stop of the day for many bloggers. Right on your profile, you can add some of most popular communities you belong to: AIM, del.icio.us, Digg, Facebook, Flickr, Last.fm, MyBlogLog, MySpace, StumbleUpon, Technorati, and Twitter. And that's just for starters.

Stand Offs: None to speak of. At a glance, some professionals might be miffed by the abundance of active members with personal blogs and monetorization blogs, but only until you get to know them. They are extremely nice, approachable, and deeply talented. Collectively, they know more about social media than any niche group I’ve come across. You also won’t find a BlogCatalog.com blog as Berkman and his staff mostly communicate on the discussion board (but they all have their own blogs). Yet, they are among the most engaging and friendly non-niche social directory hosts anywhere.

So there you have it. While each has its own culture and climate, they are just like any group you might belong to in person: you get back what you put into them.

The best bet is to put your company (or personal) strategy first. Then, join several but only become active on those that best fit your objectives because as we all know (I hope), there is no such thing as a social media strategy. Social media is a versatile tactic.

Beyond that, social networks are allowing people to participate online without ever starting a blog, vlog, or radio show. But for those who do, they represent the best way to gain targeted exposure.

Thursday, June 14

Whacking Wal-Mart: BusinessWeek

If there ever was a case study that I would like to see concluded, it is the continued controversy and media spectacle between Julie Roehm and Wal-Mart. In the end, of the two parties still playing (the rest had the sense to exit gracefully), no one is going to win.

Some members of the media are working hard to make sure of it, looking under every stone for evidence to prove that Wal-Mart is not only unethical but also the embodiment of corporate evil (if you believe some of their accounts). Sure, part of it is Wal-Mart's fault, because if a public relations problem has truly grown out of the case, it is Wal-Mart's apparent inability to keep the story simple: its former marketing executive allegedly based her multi-million dollar advertising campaign decision on who could wine, dine, and woo her the most while using company money to fund an affair.

But that's not the story people are writing. Instead, the latest story to surface in the media's "Whack-O-Wal-Mart" game is BusinessWeek with a write-up penned by Pallavi Gogoi. The lead that Gogoi unearthed from nowhere is the story of Chalace Epley Lowry, who started working at Wal-Mart as an administrative assistant in the communications department in January.

Lowry says she was subjected to a day-long orientation with a heavy emphasis on ethics and was told "if we see something that has the appearance of something unethical we should report it." The person she reported was Mona Williams, vice-president for corporate communications, for what seemed to be related to "insider trading" in Lowry's eyes.

"In all honesty, Mona's transactions could all have been above board," Lowry says, "but I acted in good faith, just pointing out that there might have been some wrongdoing."

According to Wal-Mart, Lowry was confused. The company says she mistook a deferred compensation form for an options exercise request and that Williams did nothing wrong. Williams also learned of the complaint, prompting some inner office tension that resulted in Lowry leaving to find new employment.

There is a lot wrong with this story, but perhaps not in the way some people might think. Although employers might provide ethics training, I suggest employees pursue a better understanding of ethics on their own. Even if your employer tells you to report "the appearance of something unethical" that is not an appropriate solution. Of course, you'll never get this out of the BusinessWeek article.

In this case, Lowry would have been better off asking Williams what the documents were before reporting it. Had the papers been related to stocks and tied to insider trading (as Lowry believed and Wal-Mart refuted after an investigation), she could have given Williams the chance to correct the ethical breach, with an understanding that Lowry would report it if no course correction was made. It's about that simple.

Now I don't believe that Lowry intentionally meant to break her supervisor's trust and breach ethics, but she did. And while that is not the story I read in BusinessWeek, that is what the real story is: give your co-workers an opportunity to correct an ethical breach before going over their heads to report it. If more people did that, maybe there wouldn't be a Roehm/Wal-Mart scuff-up to write about.

Right. Sean Womack could have said, "Gee Julie, those e-mails are a little racy for my taste. Please don't send them." Ho hum. At least he had the good sense to get out of a fight that no one is going to win.

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