Tuesday, August 7

Serving Diversity: From Mauler To Social Media

While this analogy of social media to the restaurant industry is not the first step to develop a social media mix as an extension of your business strategy, it does illustrate something that public relations professionals, marketing experts, and so-called celebrity A-list bloggers sometimes forget. As a whole, the blogosphere isn’t all that different from the restaurant industry. There are different strokes for different folks. The model of success for one might not work for another.

Yesterday, I shared some wisdom from two Mobile five-star restaurants. You might have noticed that neither of them said anything silly like you have to have duck on the menu. So today, I thought it would be fun to share some insights from another favorite celebrity chef of mine; someone who knows something about diversity and shares something in common with me.

Gustav Mauler has owned successful several restaurants (I’ve reviewed a few over the years). Currently, he operates Spiedini, Sazio, and Gustav’s Cigar Bar, each of them a little different. When he received a Las Vegas Chamber Community Achievement Award in 2002 (an honor we share), I asked him for five quick keys for success.

Gustav Mauler’s Five Keys For Success

1. Love your profession.
2. Cater to your guests — continually improve systems to consistently exceed the customer’s expectations.
3. Run your business with integrity.
4. Share your talents through education.
5. Give back to the community.

He didn’t say open a cigar bar or why gorgonzola works with spinach salad a little better than parmesan. Some of the fine bloggers at BlogCatalog seem to get it. I asked them what kind of restaurant is your blog and their answers are as diverse as you might expect. You can see them all in the discussion string (highly recommend), but here are a few highlights with their descriptors up front:

• A tea room (Thrift Shop Romantic.)
• A basement coffee shop (Tetsujin’s Blog.)
• A pet-friendly eatery (Pet Friendly Travel.)
• A roadside diner (Agents Don’t Do Housework.)
• A Norwegian “special bite” (Chiamimi.)
• A Willy Wonka chocolate factory (Eavesdrop Writer.)
• A local café (Apathetic Lemming of the North.)
• An ice cream parlor (Daisy The Curly Cat.)

There are many more choices for sure. But what about the public? Are people only interested in celebrity chefs or quick service twits? Let’s find out. Vote for the broadest social media dining styles that represent where you’re likely to go most often. You can pick multiple choices, but only vote once.


Feel free to add your own dining “descriptor” and (include the html text only as results vary) in the comments. I’ll revisit this issue sometime next week (after the poll closes). Sure, this is hardly scientific, but I have a few theories in the works.

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Monday, August 6

Dining Out: Recipes For Social Media Success

After eating a late lunch at Claim Jumper yesterday, neither my son nor I felt all that well. As a former dining reviewer, it wasn’t hard for me to figure out that the food had waited too long on the hot plate before service; the same experience two other guests complained about before departing in a huff.

Social media can make you feel the same way sometimes. Undercooked entrees, poor service, or unrestrained comments leave you wondering why you dropped by to sample the menu (if there is one).

After following a link to Robert Scoble talking about the death of blogging (hat tip to Geoff Livingston’s take on content vs. contacts at BlogStraightTalk), I felt like I did after eating at Claim Jumper.

Sure, I like Scoble’s blog, but lately he seems to be serving up a different dish than what attracted me to begin with. And he hasn't been all that kind to some patrons either. As a “celebrity chef” of blogging, he might know better.

Rather than berate the point, maybe it would be more useful to remind everyone that like restaurants, there are several different culinary styles to social media. Whether you want it served up like fast food (social networks), hole-in-the-wall (undiscovered C-listers), established favorites (B-listers) or something gourmet (A-listers, while they are A-listers anyway), you can always find what you are looking for (and some days you want one more than the other).

But regardless of what kind of blog you have (ancient wisdom, tech and trendy, or fast and frenzied), the best bloggers, no matter what list they are supposedly on, always underpin what they have with some common sense. I could list a hundred or so who do it right. But rather than do that, I’ll share what Julian Serrano, executive chef at Picasso (Bellagio Hotel and Casino), and David Renna, then general manager at Renoir (The Mirage Hotel and Casino) shared with me when their experiences became the first Las Vegas restaurants to earn Mobil Travel Guide’s prestigious five star rating.

Julian Serrano, Picasso (2000)
1. Everyone must work hard and work together as a team. Everyone must think the same.
2. Everything must work together—the service, décor, and location—in order to give guests the best gastronomic experience possible.
3. You must have the best quality produce and products available. Nothing less will do.
4. Make each guest feel special and important.
5. You must provide good service, good food, and a good overall dining experience.

David Renna, Renoir (2000)
1. Surround yourself and your staff with the most talented people available.
2. You must have commitment from every member of the staff, whether it be the chef, waiter, steward or manager.
3. While it can often be a difficult and expensive task, producing the finest ingredients and wines from around the world makes a tremendous difference in the overall presentation and experience.
4. Service must be professional, and above all, personalized.
5. Every evening, every table, every guests. Create a seamless and hopefully flawless dining experience.

Now that is five-star dining (no wonder why I sometimes miss the assignments). And, not surprisingly, it also happens to be the recipe for social media success — surround yourself with talented contacts, make sure everything is working together, always provide the freshest ingredients, infuse some original content and ideas from around the world, and personalize the experience for guests as much as possible.

It seems to work. So much so that just like most restaurants, the ability to stay on top wth five stars (regardless of seating capacity) has a lot to do with serving substance over flash in the pan.

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Saturday, August 4

Going Viral: From Soflow To Jericho


BusinessLine recently published “Why Viral Marketing Fails" that represents some business backtracking on the concept of consumer marketing. It was reposted by Charles Cook as "the lights were going out" on the Adrants' Solfow forum.

Of course, Soflow wasn’t really closing as much as it was morphing into Wis.dm. but the viral “closing” campaign seems to have been more successful for other networks than Soflow. Competing networks quickly offered up they were sad to see it go but were happy to accept its refugees. This left Soflow inc.’s new platform with fewer members than if it had not mismanaged its message with the hope of going viral.

But can the misfire really be pinned to the concept of viral marketing? Is it really true that most consumer marketing campaigns are destined to end up with a whimper? BuisinessLine seems to think so as the article questions everything from the name “viral marketing” to the very “ethics” of it. Yawn.

Any time viral marketing (though “consumer marketing” does sound better) fails, the failure can be traced back to a flawed strategy more easlly than a flawed concept. You see, the best consumer marketing — the kind that Hotmail originally used to become a success story — cannot be “forced” upon an unsuspecting public. For marketers, the simplest solution is to have a plan B in the event the viral plan A doesn't work.

Even better, if you’re lucky, consumers might kick off a viral campaign and all the company needs to do is nurture it. The question isn't how this happens as much as how it is happening. One of the best consumer success stories currently in progress is the once cancelled, now resurrected television series Jericho.

CBS never asked for a consumer campaign; the consumers did it on their own. The long and growing list of consumer marketing credits now include: Shaun OMac’s BlogTalkRadio show, fan-generated Web sites like Jericho Lives; forums like Jericho Rally Point; and Radio Free Jericho; an upcoming J-Con convention; fan groups like Jericho Coalition; and blogs like Jericho On CBS, The Jericho Bulletin, and Jericho Monster.

Jericho Monster, hosted by Jane S., demonstrates why consumer marketing works: it has a strategy driven by common sense. Without mapping it out like a communication consultant or marketing guru, her blog(s) have an unwritten work plan. Here’s a thumbnail of what she is doing (based on observation and not any formalized plan):

Objectives
Introduce non-viewers to the show.
Educate fans how to do the same.
Increase viewers for Season 2.
Tactics
Launch multiple interlinked blogs.
Make connections across the Web.
Expand the content to increase interest.
Early Results
Growing presence beyond Jericho fans.
Increased blog traffic driven to Jericho site.
Expanded content that caters to diverse interests.

It’s smart. And it demonstrates the best of consumer marketing. Through it all, CBS and Junction Entertainment have been increasing their efforts to assist the fans without attempting to “control” them or the proliferation of their content. On the contrary, they have taken to praising it (the image above, framed by a CBS Jericho widget border, is one of several created by Jericho fan Rubber Poultry), linking to various blogs and forums, and offering widgets fans to add anywhere they like online.

At this rate, Jericho stands to have a sensational return for its short-run seven episodes next season. And if it proves successful, it seems very likely that it will be on the verge of a complete renewal.

There isn’t any mad marketing genius behind what is becoming a viral phenomenon — just fans with a sense of passion and purpose. That’s true for all consumer marketing. It’s less about gimmick and more about allowing something to catch consumer interest. And, if that doesn’t work, you might be best served to have a plan B.

There are thirteen days left to enter Copywrite, Ink.'s contribution to consumer-generated Jericho buzz:. The free “Expanded Universe Short Story Competition” entry deadline is Aug. 17.

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Friday, August 3

Balancing Acts: Social Media Measures


A few days ago, Lee Odden had a similar idea. Although I have a different conclusion, Odden’s piece is a must read for anyone hoping to understand a little more about combined ranking systems.

My decision to take a look at them began the day after I posted about Ad Age’s acquisition of Todd And’s Power 150. Jane S. (Jericho Saved) left a comment, asking “Is Todd’s considered to be more reliable than BlogPulse? Is BP even reliable?”

Other than BlogPulse being a better topic measure and Todd's being a better niche industry blog ranker, maybe the best answer is that most social media measures provide insight, but these insights are often misleading. Here is the oversimplified truth behind some of them:

Google PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the Web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page's value (the more links, the higher the page relevance). Importance: it provides an indication of how many other pages are sourcing "searched" information from that page to determine its search rank. Triviality: sometimes you don’t have to be first to be relevant (and not everyone searches on Google). (Bonus: Mac users can get a free dashboard widget at Apple.)

Alexa Traffic Rank is based on the usage of millions of Alexa toolbar users. It is the most common gauge to determine traffic. Importance: it provides an excellent snapshot to see which direction your Web site is moving from a broad perspective. Triviality: traffic doesn’t necessarily mean you are getting the right traffic. (Bonus: Terence Chang recently offered some tips about Alexa.)

Bloglines is a free online service for searching, subscribing, creating and sharing news feeds, blogs, and Web content. Importance: the more subscribers and bookmarkers, the more likely these subscribers will visit your blog. Triviality: There are many subscription services, which is why some people are now pushing FeedBurner as a better measure. However, keep in mind that some subscribers are likely to add a blog to multiple readers, which means the measure is likely less than. (Bonus: ProBlogger asks if full feeds increases subscription rates.)

Technorati tracks 94.9 million blogs and over 250 million pieces of tagged social media. Its authority system, which is one of the most criticized (for some reason), ranks blogs based on links from other blogs in the last 180 days. Importance: the authority rank indicates how many other social media participants consider your post relevant enough to comment about it on their blogs. Triviality: Meemes and other link lists can artificially inflate ranking. (Bonus: Make Money Online shares one strategy.)

Digg and other news aggregators allow user submitted content to be voted on by a community. Importance: a post that gets "dugg" by hundreds of members will most certainly increase traffic. Triviality: member alliances can increase diggs on content with little substance. (Bonus: Digerati Marketing recently posted some Digg tactics.)

Social Networks can include any number of places, ranging from BlogCatalog.com to Facebook to Linkedin to (if we’re being honest) Twitter. Almost all of them (including Technorati, which has "favorites") have some sort of “connection” mechanism. Importance: friends can mean the difference between exposure and no exposure. Triviality: it’s relatively easy to make friends and connections. (Bonus: If you ask, 90 percent of those asked will add you, unless you are a troll.)

Content/Frequency/Comments is another measure that has been around for a while. It was recently re-popularized by Edelman’s complex Social Media Index. Importance: the frequency of posting and number of comments all contribute to increased traffic. Triviality: posting too frequently buries good content and comments can all too easily be inflated. (Bonus: Here are the top ten tips that have been around a long time.)

Conclusion. Everybody likes the rankings, traffic, comments, diggs, and, well, whatever (yeah, me too). They create conversation, attract attention, and demonstrate momentum even when social media pundits weight the numbers toward those areas they excel (and we all know they do) or attempt to game the system.

At best, it seems to me that it is these measures and the gaming of them that slows social media from becoming more mainstream (as it makes the average business owner skeptical of blogs). At worst, it detracts from what communication people are supposed to focus on: the company's overall strategy and the true measures of success (like market share, sales, etc.).

Put plainly, Seth Godin doesn’t have a successful blog because he ranks 8,311 on Alexa or 13 on Technorati. Godin has a successful blog because his online brand is consistent with who he wants to be perceived as and, more importantly, he sells a lot of books (The Dip, released May 10, is still #447 on Amazon).

In sum, the best measures of success come from achieving results that are derived out of a sound business strategy. Certainly, any of these measures can help provide a performance snapshot (assuming you avoid the temptation to game them), but the active pursuit of them won't do much more than distract from what really matters.

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Thursday, August 2

Designing Sky: EarthJustice.org

Maybe it is because I'm working on a Web site for a company that is introducing a best available technology for concrete slurry recovery (mixer washout), but a few environmental campaigns have recently stood out to me. One of them, Adopt the Sky, which was launched by EarthJustice.org, adds a new twist on petition signing.

The Adopt the Sky campaign asks people to sign a petition that calls for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to strengthen ozone standards beyond the new levels introduced on June 21.

From a communication perceptive, what struck me about the petition is that it is set against the backdrop of a blue sky with bright green washers floating at various fields of depth. When your cursor rolls over one of them, it turns orange and a speech balloon pops up with one of the petition signer's personal messages.

For example, one might say "Heather B adopted sky over DC on 08.02.07: It's the least we can do." Currently, there are more than 16,000 disks and messages featured on a free-flowing petition.

It works because the design complements the message as an extension of the overall strategy. The best messages usually do. Currently, advertising is trending toward increasingly outrageous messages in every medium with businesses (or their agencies) sometimes forgetting that runaway creative ideas sometimes get carried away to the point where they drown out the real message.

If you have ever seen an advertisement that was funny enough to tell a friend, but you could not remember whose advertisement it was, then you know what I'm talking about. In contrast, the Adopt the Sky campaign keeps it simple with an interesting, free-flowing design element that complements its message. I've seen the technique used on the Web before, but this one works especially well.

Yesterday, I also received another indication that EarthJustice.org knows a little something about communication ...

"We are so sorry! We just sent an email to you thanking you for signing our petition on the AdoptTheSky.org site.

But we messed up ... we mis-matched your email address with
someone else's name! We are correcting the information right
now. And don't worry - your personal information is protected.

Thanks for your patience. By the way, you can still tell your friends to 'Adopt the Sky' (link inserted)."

Sometimes, demonstrating you can make a mistake without taking it too seriously can have a greater impact than the original message. While a follow-up e-mail like this won't work for everyone, it does work for them.

In closing, allow me to add that this post is much more about communication than environmental policy. If you are interested in environmental policy and this petition, I fully encourage you to explore the various arguments before signing it (like any petition).

If there is one critique about this campaign: much of it reads as if the campaign is supporting the EPA. It is not. This petition supports the organization's position that the EPA fell short on June 21.

While it seems clear to me that most people understand it is in our best interest to protect the environment, most of the debates generally polarized over the pace in which we protect it. And that is something to always keep in mind.

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Wednesday, August 1

Silencing Crisis: Whole Foods Market, Inc.


There is something to be learned from Whole Foods Market, Inc. (WFMI) beyond its back to school nutritional program. Sometimes silence can be a golden as a July Pippin'.

That's what you'll learn if you visit John Mackey’s blog today. All you will find is silence. The CEO of Whole Foods left his last message, directed to shareholders, on July 17…

“A Special Committee of our Board of Directors' is conducting an independent internal investigation into online financial message board postings related to Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats Markets, Inc. (OATS). In light of this, it is in the best interest of the company to temporarily hold off on posting on my Company blog. The ability to post comments to this blog will be disabled during this time as well. I look forward to resuming our conversations and plan on being in touch with you again soon.”

He will. There is very little doubt. Despite anonymously posting disparaging remarks that may have impacted the stock price of Wild Oats, the company that Whole Foods is now fighting the Federal Trade Commission to acquire; the SEC investigation; the independent internal investigation; and the calls for his resignation by dozens of organizations, including CtW Investment Group, whose members own about 900,000 Whole Foods shares, Mackey will likely retain his position.

Less certain is whether Whole Foods will acquire Wild Oats, but that is another conversation thread all together. Lawyers for Whole Foods and the federal government are set to offer closing arguments today.

More in line with observations in communication is noting: this case study will likely become the bane of public relations professionals because it chips away at what some call the tenets of crisis communication. Maybe that’s a good thing.

For example, against what most PR pros would advise, Whole Foods went silent on the issue after apologizing to stakeholders (never mind Wild Oats shareholders who may have lost money on the advice of the masked Wild Oats stock vandal “rahodeb”). Then, yesterday, earned an extremely rare and generous pass from the media, allowing him to break his company's self-censorship and tout that they beat Wall Street estimates.

"Currently we do not expect the same degree of year-over-year increase in our total pre-opening expenses," Mackey said, as reported by CNN Money. "We are very excited to see the acceleration in our new store openings materialize, as we expect these new stores to drive strong sales and comparable-store sales growth in the not-so-distant future.”

As found in The Wall Street Journal: “I could understand if Mr. Mackey was accused of spreading false rumors about his company to manipulate the stock price, but I have not heard such allegations.” Or perhaps even more telling from The Motley Fool

“Look, I'm not saying that John Mackey should have gone onto the Yahoo! message board for Whole Foods and posted anonymous messages extolling his company while trashing Wild Oats. It was dumb, an activity with almost no hope for upside. But I understand it. I understand why John Mackey would see the nonsense that some random keyboard heroes wrote about him and his company and find the impulse to shoot back irresistible.”

Chip. Chip. Chip. It is any wonder why some public relations professionals have a hard time finding a position at the proverbial “table?” You cannot get there until you understand business let alone the new state of media, which suggests that today’s editors and analysts would rather be right than write about what is right.

"From a Whole Foods perspective we will be glad one way or another to have this situation resolved because it's taken a lot of management time and we spent a lot of money on lawyers," CNN Money reports Mackey said on a call. "It's been incredibly burdensome on us."

Like a fly buzzing in their ears, I imagine. Whether Whole Foods is allowed to acquire Wild Oats or not, Mackey and Whole Foods will not only survive but will also continue to see their stock fare well. Pending some revelation from the internal or SEC investigation of Whole Foods, it also seems unlikely to me that Mackey will be leaving anytime soon, chipping away at the notion that companies have to make a sacrifice in order to emerge from a crisis.

So what makes Mackey so special? As part of what I call my Fragile Brand Theory, Mackey has always been successful in presenting himself as somewhat eccentric thereby putting himself in the position to garner understanding in the wake of what Mackey himself even called his own “lack of judgment.”

That doesn’t make what he did right by any stretch of the imagination. While some people wonder about the Mackey case study “if we are not falling victim to a distorted sense of hubris in the United States: We are offended to the point of threatening legal action over surficial issues that are probably neither unethical or illegal,” I hopefully offer a clearer perspective.

What Mackey did, posing as an anonymous poster with an alleged agenda to damage his competition for future gain, was unethical.

Whether or not it is illegal is up to the SEC to decide. Whether or not the remedy is his resignation is up to the shareholders to decide. Whether or not shareholders are outraged will likely depend on the price of the shares. And whether or not the media decides to give him a pass or not will largely be dictated by the previous three outcomes.

I’m not saying this is right, but it is what it is. And what also “is” is that public relations professionals need to move away from formulaic approaches to crisis communication and consider the thought processes behind those bullet points. (We’ll compare this crisis to traditional crisis communication check lists next week.)

If they do not, executives will be hard pressed to take the profession seriously when good CEOs like David Neeleman at JetBlue play it by the “book” and are pushed aside while CEOs like Mackey, who clearly breached ethics, can break away and be heralded as a wacky egomaniac who, well, make shareholders lots of money.

Then again, I suppose all those who claimed the remedy is resignation still have a shot to be “right” as this case study seems far from over. But when it is over, I can promise you this: I'll probably have to add a warning label. Don't Try This At Home.

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