Stop looking for silver bullets and start asking smart questions

Marketing and public relations problems are not monsters, but lots of people seem to think they are.

If I can just find that single right tactic – that silver bullet or wooden stake  then I can slay the demons of competition and win the business.

I’m not kidding. I’ve had clients basically say things like “All we want is a news release” or “We just need a really good-looking brochure” or “If I could just get my website to rank highly on Google …”

Even when an agency, marketing-communications manager or freelancer delivers on those goals, the client is still likely to be disappointed. (And you can guess who gets blamed then.)

Here’s the point: No single tactic or channel is going to solve all your marketing problems.

Whenever I hear clients start to say “We just need …” I start asking questions. Because I know if I don’t figure out what outcome they actually want to achieve, they probably won’t be happy and I may not be working with them for long.

Clients are smart. Sometimes they’ve worked through all the questions and they really are just looking for that one final tactical execution to get their marketing efforts across the finish line. And they want to get there as quickly and cheaply as possibly; fair enough. In those cases, you still need to ask questions.

Knowing the desired outcome is critical to executing a tactic effectively.

But usually when a client says “we just need …”, what they really need is to start asking a bunch of questions. “We just need” is often code for “We have a marketing problem, and this is what I think might be the quickest, easiest way to solve it, but we really don’t know for sure – we’re just guessing.”

Often, though, the marketing problem has multiple causes, and solving it will require addressing them all.

So, when you hear  or say to yourself  that you just need that one silver bullet in your marketing plan, STOP. Instead, ask yourself some questions. Here’s a good list to get started with, though it’s not exhaustive.

  • Have you precisely defined your target customers or clients? Given your sales and profit goals, are those the right customers?
  • What are you doing to make sure those customers want to buy from you? Do they even know about you?
  • What are you doing to stay in front of people who have bought from you in the past?
  • What are you doing to encourage referrals, word-of-mouth and advocacy?
  • What are you doing to stay in touch with people who expressed interest in buying in the past, but chose not to at that time?
  • Do you have a unique, compelling position in the market, or are you perceived as just another provider? Have you communicated that difference clearly, powerfully and consistently? Do you offer proof of that difference?
  • Are you making offers on a regular basis to your potential clients or customers?
  • Are you listening to your audience? Are you asking them what their needs and problems are, what they think of your industry and what they think of you? Have you asked people who don’t buy from you why?
  • Are you asking these questions consistently?

There are a bunch more questions you should have that are specific to your industry and business. But as you can see, asking them, answering them honestly and then acting on those answers can be a lot of work.

You might find your sales funnel is full of holes, or that there’s not that many leads coming in the top of the funnel to begin with. Those problems aren’t usually solved with just one tactic or channel.

Yes, this is a lot of work. And yes, it can seem a bit intimidating to take it on. But I guarantee you, it’s less scary then firing that single silver bullet and discovering the monster is going to keep coming.

How to write for the Internet

Professional writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant says that when writing for the Internet, you should consider the advice public speakers are often given: slow down.

In writing terms, this means focusing on being as easy to read as possible. This is because people read differently at their computers than they do when faced with any printed document.

You may not always be conscious of it but when we’re reading at our computers, a light is shining in our eyes… This is the backlighting from the screen and we usually don’t notice it  — except if we’re sitting on a beach in the sunshine and suddenly discover we can’t read at all.

But there are other challenges with computers. The typefaces we like on paper often don’t work on screen. Each letter is represented by square pixels on a grid rather than by lines of ink on paper. This makes them harder to read. As well, our computers have less control over spacing, hyphenation, justification and column width.

Furthermore, the width of a standard column on the Internet is often too wide for the human eye. (When I worked in the newspaper biz, I was always told that you should multiply the point size you used by two to determine what should be the maximum column width in picas. Thus, anything in 9 pt type should be no more than 18 picas wide, or about three inches.) Many Internet sites have columns far wider than three inches!

Bottom line? When you give your readers text on a screen, you’re asking them to work really hard. Thus, it’s more important to “speak slowly” so they understand what you’re trying to say.

She goes on to give a series of specific tips and tactics to make your writing easier to understand online. Many of these tips apply to email as well. Go read Daphne’s post at The Measurement Standard for more details.

(Want more about how to write well? Check out my blog posts about writing.)


Social media productivity: Have an impact online, while still having a life offline

Friday I presented at ConvergeSouth 2012 in Greensboro. I gave a talk about how to use social media productively, by which I mean getting results without having to spend 18 hours a day online. Below are my slides.

If you’re interested in having me speak to your group or conference on this topic or any of the other subjects I write about here, please get in touch.

10 reasons to attend ConvergeSouth 2012

ConvergeSouth 2012 logoIn less than two weeks, ConvergeSouth 2012 will take place in downtown Greensboro, N.C. at the Elon Law School.

The conference covers creativity, business and community online. Which means, in practical terms, loads of information on everything from web development to pay-per-click advertising to making a living from your blog.

I’ve attended ConvergeSouth several times, and this year’s conference will be the third year in a row (at least) for me. I always learn something, always meet new and interesting people, and always leave with new ideas. If that wasn’t enough, here are 10 more reasons you should go:

  1. If you work for or with nonprofits, there’s a whole track of sessions devoted specifically to nonprofits.
  2. If you’re a total beginner when it comes to these things, there’s a whole track of “101” sessions just for you.
  3. If you’re a developer who eats, breaths and sleeps in code, check out the advanced (“301″) sessions.
  4. If you’ve been hearing a lot about content marketing, there are several people who will cover that subject.
  5. If you know you need to do a better job with search engine optimization, whether you’re just dipping your toe into this or need some advanced tips, there are speakers who will cover that.
  6. If you want to boost your web presence with video, you can learn from people who know how to do that.
  7. If you want to know what to do when everything goes wrong — when everybody’s attacking you — there’s a speaker who will cover that.
  8. If you want to know how to get the media to pay attention to your business, your cause or your idea, a newspaper editor will provide insights.
  9. If you want to brush up on using WordPress, Facebook or LinkedIn for your business or nonprofit, there are sessions for you.
  10. You can get a 25% discount with the discount code “CS2012-MARK.”

Unlike other social media/tech conferences, ConvergeSouth is a grassroots, all-volunteer nonprofit effort. That means we’re focused on delivering great content, not maximizing profit. As a result, this is about the best deal around for this kind of conference — just $99, before the above-mentioned discount code.

In full disclosure, I’m on ConvergeSouth’s all-volunteer board, so I might be a bit biased about this. But trust me, I wouldn’t be spending my time on this (or writing this post) if I didn’t think it was worth it.
I hope to see you there.

Once again, here’s the registration link; to get an extra 25% off use the discount code “CS2012-MARK” (without the quote marks, naturally).

P.S. There’s a limited number of discounts available under my code; once they’re gone, they’re gone. Register now.

Six surefire ways to zero in on your customers’ pains

Want to move someone to action? Identify one of their “pain points” and tell them how you’ll solve it.

Let’s take a literal example: back pain.

Get back pain? Does it interfere with the way you enjoy life? Chances are pretty good this ad would motivate you to go to grab some Aleve from the medicine cabinet or, if you’re out, go buy some. The commercial brings to life the physical, social and emotional discomfort that pain brings.

You can do the same thing with whatever you’re selling.

But to do it persuasively, you’ve got to know what words, feelings, ideas and images people associate with the pain your product or service relieves.

You need to learn your prospects’ “language of pain.”

If you have the pain in question yourself because you’re part of the prospective customer group, than you may start out with some insight on this. Many of us would be able to sympathize with old Saint Nick in the Aleve ad.

But if you’re a marketing manager trying to sell corporate financial management software to chief financial officers, you probably don’t have an intuitive, first-hand grasp of how CFOs talk, feel and think about the pain points around accounting software. After all, you’re a marketer, not a finance pro.

So how do you learn the language of pain for CFOs, or anyone else? Here are six ways to zero in on this vocabulary of discomfort.

  1. Mine keyword data. Using tools such as Google’s free keyword tool, you can see what terms people are using when searching for solutions or answers to particular problems. This will give you a sense for the words people actually use. (Google has tutorials on how to use this tool.)
  2. Monitor social media. By finding communities of your target customer group and listening to what they say and how they say it, you can often discover how your prospects talk about and feel about the pain in question. LinkedIn groups are a good place to start for B2B marketers, as are any specialized social media sites in your industry. There are lots of tools you can use to search broadly; one good free one is Social Mention. You should also read industry blogs (and their comments) for insights.
  3. Interviews and focus groups. In-depth conversations with even a small number of people can provide you access to the language they use and feelings they have about the problem you’re offering a solution for.
  4. Trade shows. Interviews and focus groups are formal ways to tap into the language of pain, but attending trade shows and conferences and simply striking up conversations with your target audience can lead to insights, too. Listen carefully, especially to what people say when they’ve had a few drinks and have loosened up a bit – they may get less polite, but more honest. Honesty is what you need.
  5. Your sales and customer service staff. The sales and customer service teams usually have a lot of direct contact with your target audience (if they don’t, you have another problem). Talk to them to understand how your prospects think, feel and talk about their problems. You can also go along on sales meetings and listen to customer service calls.
  6. Media coverage. If the problem you’re solving has been covered in the media the language used by reporters in stories, quotes in those stories and words used in editorials and op-ed pieces can offer important clues. Trade publications are a great place to look for B2B products and services. In addition to the publications you already have in your office, you might want to cast your net wider. Yahoo has a directory. But don’t stop with one source. There are thousands of trade publications out there.

Obviously, as you go through the research process you should, at a minimum, take a lot of notes. If you compile a large amount of raw text – interview transcripts and social media conversation, for example, you could also dump it into a tool such as Wordle, which produces “word clouds” that show you graphically which words are used more often.

What tips do you have for understanding how customers think, feel and talk? Please share in the comments below.

What would you do? Communications during high-stakes situations

What would you do if …

  • You ran an airline and a famous Hollywood personality was kicked off one of your planes for being “too fat” – and then started tweeting about it angrily to his 2 million followers?
  • You worked for a struggling newspaper company and, right after your board of directors awarded the CEO a $500,000 bonus, you had to announce layoffs?
  • You ran an oil company that experienced a disastrous drilling rig accident that killed 11 people and spilled massive amounts of oil into the sea?

I’ll be talking about these (real) situations and how the companies handled – or mishandled – them next week during a Biscuits & Business Networking Breakfast at Elon University’s Love School of Business (home to the nation’s No. 1 part-time MBA program). Business & Biscuits Networking Breakfast logo

The breakfast will give you a taste of some of the topics I will be covering, probably later this summer, in an executive education course on public relations.

The course is designed for managers and executives of businesses and nonprofits who want to better understand the role of public relations in protecting and enhancing an organization’s reputation, enhancing its brand and driving business. It will cover public relations principles, media relations, social media and crisis communications (the topic of next week’s breakfast). This is not necessarily intended for practitioners who are already familiar with these areas, but PR professionals are welcome.

If this stuff interests you and you’re in central North Carolina, I encourage you to contact Bethany Delk at the Love School and register for the breakfast. Looking forward to seeing you there.

Why you should ignore what GM and Chris Brogan do online

I saw this morning that Chris Brogan, one of the social media world’s A-listers and guiding lights, has closed his LinkedIn account, which included more than 16,000 contacts and 143 recommendations. Many of us would kill for a network that big and that strong, but apparently it wasn’t working for him.

LinkedIn logo

Last week, GM made headlines when it announced, just days before Facebook’s IPO, that it was canceling its $10 million ad spend with the social network. It wasn’t getting the return it needed apparently. Others have also criticized Facebook’s ads (Ryan Holliday of American Apparel, for example).

Does this mean you should dump LinkedIn? Maybe cancel all your Facebook ads?

Unless your Chris Brogan or GM, these incidents don’t mean anything. Play your game, not someone else’s game.

Easy to say, right? But the question is, how do you actually do that? Are we never supposed to pay attention to what others are doing? Are there never lessons there? Fair enough.

Here’s how you play your own game.

1. Know what your goals are.

2. Know how your going to measure those goals and what metrics are going to account along the way. (For anything online, report bottom-line measurements to the boss, but you’ll need to measure other things to actually move toward those sales-and-profit-oriented objectives.)

3. Start doing stuff to try to move those metrics in the right direction. Yes, should look at case studies, listen to the experts and evaluate your options based on your own experience. In other words, take your best guess. But you won’t know what will work and how well until you actually do something.

4. Once you start doing stuff, per step 3, then you can figure out what’s working (and try to make it work better) and figure out what’s not working (and fix it or stop it).

Rinse and repeat.

It’s really not that hard.

So, a giant car maker dropping Facebook ads and a social media A-lister dropping LinkedIn is interesting. But it has nothing to do with your marketing efforts.

Do you disagree? How are you evaluating your digital marketing efforts? Please leave a comment below.

 P.S. I need to say that I think Chris Brogan is a smart guy and I think he’s right about 90 percent of the time when it comes to social media. But my point stands: Listen to what he says and think about it means to your business, but don’t blindly mimic him, or GM or anyone else.

Beware of bad advice on social media metrics

Lately, I’ve seen a slew of articles — like this, this and this — bashing the use of certain measurements in social media and online marketing efforts.

You mean Facebook page “likes” don’t matter? The amount of traffic to your website is irrelevant? And the number of Twitter followers isn’t worth counting?

Tape measure

Photo via {a href=""}Gastonmag{/a}

Whoa, Nelly, let’s slow down a bit here. Those metrics do count, and if you’re in online marketing or social media, you should watch them closely. The key is understanding what they really mean and how to use them.

The experts are right in that if these metrics are the only thing you measure, your online efforts are doomed. If you tell the CEO how many people “Like” the company on Facebook, then that person has every right to fire back with “How is that driving our sales?”

So yes, report the metrics that count to leadership: How many new sales leads your efforts have generated, how much increased revenue (or better yet, profit) you’re responsible for, how much you’ve boosted awareness of the brand. That’s all good and well.

But actually driving those numbers in the direction that makes the boss happy requires more insight. You’ve got to know what levers you can press to move the bottom-line numbers. The best way to figure this out is to understand what kind of sales and marketing funnel you’re working with. (If you don’t know what a sales and marketing funnel is, here’s a good explanation.)

Boost the top line to drive the bottom line

Let me give you an example here. Let’s say your target metric is the number of website lead-gen forms you get potential customers to fill out. Before people can fill out the form, they’ve got to visit your website. And even once they’re on the website, they have to believe that they can trust with their information, that you can deliver something of value to them (hopefully the product or service you’re selling), and that it’s worth their time to give you their contact information.

To start with, let’s say you’re getting two leads a day through your online form. And let’s say you’re getting 20 visits a day to the page with your lead-gen form, and 200 visits a day to your website. One way to increase the number of leads you get is increase the number of visits to the lead-gen form and, a farther up the funnel, increase the number or website visits you’re getting.

This is based on a pretty basic sales principle: If you want to close more deals, make more calls.

I think of these kind of metrics as “top of the funnel” stats. They’re not numbers you necessarily include in your report to the boss, but they are numbers you need to monitor, understand and move if you’re going to deliver the bottom-line results the boss wants.

10 fatal news release mistakes

Though there are many, many ways to get news coverage without issuing a news release (for some ideas, see my seven-part series on ways to earn good media coverage), press releases still work. That said, it’s also all-too-common for companies to make fatal errors in the way they write and distribute news releases. Here are 10 common problems.

Photo via {a href=""}doobybrain{/a}

 1. It doesn’t include any news. You’ve sent out a news release that provides information that your target media outlets don’t consider newsworthy. Things that news outlets don’t consider newsworthy, most of the time, include:

  • Sales and promotions. Reporters and editors will usually think you should buy an ad instead.
  • Announcements of a new website or a new marketing campaign.
  • Promotions and hires of non-senior executives. (Though there are places in some print publications where these sorts of listings run, so you can target your news release for those. Just don’t expect a big splash.)
  • General background information about the company. Reporters read it and think “nothing new here.”
  • A release done solely to satisfy disclosure requirements.

A good guideline is if you wouldn’t be very interested if another company sent out similar news, then chances are the media are not going to be very interested when you doing it.

2. You sent it to the wrong media outlets, or to the wrong people at the media outlet. Reporters have beats, and the bigger the news outlet is, the more reporters there will be with more beats. Take the time to figure out who is most likely to write about your news and then send it to that person first. Likewise, not all news outlets are interested in all news, so don’t indiscriminately send the release to every news outlet that you can find an email address for.

3. You sent it at a bad time. Late Friday afternoons? Most working journalists are probably thinking about getting home and the weekend – just like you – so unless your news release is incredibly compelling, it might get overlooked. Come Monday morning it will be at the bottom of the pile and may never see the light of day.

4. You stuffed it full of incomprehensible jargon. It doesn’t matter whether people in your industry use these terms (or you think they do), if the news release isn’t written in plain language that allows journalists to quickly understand it, your industry prose may never be seen by anyone in your industry.

5. You buried the lead. If you’ve got three paragraphs about how great your company is, the context for the news release and general background before you get to the actual news, a reporter may simply stop reading. Start with the news, or your release won’t make the news.

6. After sending the release, you called up the reporter and demanded that it be run as is, or made some other request that comes across as arrogant and unreasonable. Don’t make the people who (still) buy ink by the barrel mad with you. They’ve got plenty of other news they can use.

7. Your news release arrived when another big story was breaking for your target media. Unless you knew the news was happening, you can’t control this, but it does happen. If it happens to you, wait for that to die down and then politely follow-up and try again.

8. You failed to explain why your news is important to the publication’s readers. A new CEO at Apple is generally considered more newsworthy then a new CEO at a local insurance agency. You’ve got to explain why your news is relevant to the publication and its readers.

9. You wrote the news release for SEO value, and as a consequence it reads poorly and contains little newsworthy information. If you’re doing SEO releases with no other news value, don’t inflict them on them reporters – it will only hurt your reputation.

10. Your news is highly technical and difficult for a lay person to understand. Not only will many reporters, editors and producers simply not understand what the news is, they’re probably not too willing to make the effort to understand it if you haven’t made the effort first to make it more understandable. Scientific, technological, health care and financial news releases, especially, can all run this risk.

50 ideas for grabbing the media’s attention: Harness traditional tactics! [PART 7]

This is part seven of a seven-part series on earning the media’s attention and winning the coverage you want. Here are parts one, two, three, four, five and six in case you missed them.

Traditional tactics - newspaper building picture

{a href=””}Photo via cherrycoke{/a}

A lot of the tactics I’ve discussed so far in this series, such as producing your own media and becoming an expert, probably aren’t obvious for most business executives and entrepreneurs. But “traditional” tactics, such as news releases, can still work. Here are five traditional tactics (well — four plus a twist on one) that are still valuable PR tools, if you use them correctly.

1. Hold a news conference. News conferences (or press conferences or media briefings or whatever you want to call them) can generate news coverage, even front-page stories. But unless you’re the White House or a presidential candidate, reserve this for when you have a big announcement and you’re certain journalists will cover it. Here are some keys to an effective news conference:

  • Create a media kit that includes a news release with the key news, plus a fact sheet and other background documents. Also include any visuals (still photos or video) in digital form.
  • Hold it at a day and time that will work for your target media. That means scheduling it a few hours prior to print deadlines and avoiding times when TV or radio reporters might be delivering live newscasts.
  • Set up the room to make it picture friendly for still photographers and videographers.
  • Make contingency plans for bad weather if you’re going to hold it outside.
  • Provide enough space so people don’t feel crammed in.
  • If your location is far from where the media outlets are located, provide fast Internet access so reporters can file stories quickly and easily.
  • Plan in advance who will say what.
  • Having two or three speakers is OK, but don’t overwhelm journalists with a parade of bigwigs saying the same thing over and over.
  • Expect to do further one-on-one interviews afterward.
  • It’s OK to have some friends, allies and staffers sitting in the audience to make the room feel fuller. But don’t have them masquerade as journalists by asking questions or pretending to take notes; reporters will figure out what’s going on and your positive story will turn negative quickly.

2. Offer an exclusive. There’s nothing wrong with offering reporters an exclusive, and many journalists still value getting the first (and perhaps only) chance to report on something. Exclusives can be a good way to take a solid news story and get a bigger bang out of it. It’s also a good way to get coverage from news organizations publication that demand longer lead times (as many weeklies and magazines do). Be warned, that if you deal with a number of competing journalists regularly, you may get complaints about this. But it’s OK — journalists never complain about being offered exclusives, just when they’re offered to a competitor. So if you use this technique be prepared to spread it around a bit over time.

3. Write a strong news release. PR does not stand for “press release,” but good, newsy releases still generate plenty of publicity every day. (And many poorly written, no-news releases end up reporters’ trash.) Want to make sure your release turns into a story? Think like a journalist and make sure you include the following elements:

  • A clear, strong headline.
  • A straightforward lead (the first paragraph) that uses strong language and tells the reader what the news is.
  • A “nut graf” (usually the second or third paragraph) that explains why this news is important and why people should care about it. Remember that news outlets will ask themselves why their audiences should care, so make sure you answer that question.

4. Use an infographic as a news release. These will take some time and graphic design talent to pull together, but a good infographic could have a lot of appeal to reporters looking for something different.

5. Answer questions you’re not asked in an interview. Let’s say you land a media interview with one of these tactics. Not only can you use that interview to provide information and context about the news, but you can also plant a seed for another story. An interview is a great time to pitch another story. Be sure that whatever you might pitch is different enough from the topic at hand that you it won’t end up being included in the story the reporter is already working on. Also make sure you’re ready to follow-up. Here’s how that exchange might work:

Reporter: Well, I guess that’s all of my questions. Is there anything else I should know?

You: Not about this story, but we do have something interesting coming up in a couple weeks … if you’re interested. (Applying a bit of a soft sell here.)

Reporter: Oh, really? What is it?

You: We’re getting ready to  … (and you launch into your pitch)

What other “traditional” PR tactics have you used to successfully get news coverage for your company, cause or organization? Please share in the comments below.

P.S. If you enjoy this kind of practical information about public relations and marketing, you might want to sign up for my newsletter. You’ll get free updates from the blog, plus additional tips, ideas and resources that I don’t publish here on