Author Archives | sradick

About sradick

I'm Vice President, Director of Public Relations at Brunner in Pittsburgh. Find out more about me here (http://steveradick.com/about/).

Social Media Could Have Transformed Marketing — Instead, It Amplified Its Flaws

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This article originally appeared in MediaPost.

In 1999, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger said the Internet would turn markets into conversations, audiences were actual human beings, and companies would come down from their ivory towers to create meaningful relationships. Eight years later, I read their book, “The Cluetrain Manifesto.” Social media was going to change the world, and I wanted to be at the tip of the spear.

I joined a rapidly growing cadre of change agents using social media to radically transform everything from fixing potholes and broken stoplights to managing city budgets. 

Social media wasn’t the realm of any one person, department or organization. It was owned by everyone and no one. The only thing early adopters of social media had in common was the desire to create change.

These conditions applied:

  • People were people, not fictionalized digital personas.
  • No one talked about social “content.” These platforms were for conversations with constituents in real time.
  • The organizational hierarchy flattened dramatically. Corporate silos crumbled as people throughout the org chart could easily collaborate with other departments.
  • Customers talked to one another about brands all over the Internet, and marketers were invited to join.
  • Social media accounts were run by actual people, with real names and personalities.

We enforced these changes because this was an opportunity to do things differently, to do things better.  We could say, “No, senior director, you don’t get to approve every tweet we write. Do you follow me around and pre-approve my conversations, too?”

But social media became too popular, too fast. It didn’t take long for marketers to start measuring the ROI of every tweet, post, and photo. Eventually, they were able to overwhelm the change agents with processes and best practices.

Instead of recognizing social as an opportunity to fundamentally change how companies interact with employees and customers, companies did what they always do: blanketed people with ads, driving as many impressions as possible, as cheaply as possible, until they derived every last piece of revenue. “Social media” became less social. It became another place for brands to push out advertising.

Other things happened:

  • Conversations gave way to content.
  • Social media got integrated into IT, with complex usage permissions.
  • Thriving unofficial fan sites were shut down in favor of sanitized (read: boring) official sites.
  • Humans with personalities and names were replaced by corporate personas and branded voices.
  • Success was measured in clicks and likes rather than relationships and loyalty.

Rather than fundamentally changing how marketing works, marketing fundamentally changed what social media was.

Today I see a world where social media has been weaponized to manipulate the public, and where everyone — brands, influencers, politicians, friends, and family members — is no longer interested in conversations, but in capturing the most likes, clicks, and views as efficiently as possible.

Still, there are signs the pendulum is starting to swing. Unilever recently said it will no longer work with influencers who buy followers or use bots. Mozilla and Sonos pulled Facebook ads after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. And many direct-to-consumer brands like AllBirds, Warby Parker, and Glossier have grown without losing their soul: their personality and relationships with their consumers. Maybe they’ll be the change agents that reverse the trend.

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Watching Church and State Slide Down the Slippery Slope

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This article originally appeared at PRDaily.

The intersection of Church and StateThere’s a common request I’ve been receiving, and it has me simultaneously annoyed, disappointed and scared for the future.

The question comes (via email) in one of two forms:

  1. We’re interested in doing an editorial story on your client. For a small fee, we’ll be able to put together a feature story including an interview with your CEO.
  2. We’d love to develop an entire issue on your client including an interview with your CEO, several other members of the leadership team and a feature video that will run online. In exchange, all we ask is you provide us with a list of partners we can contact to see if they’re interested in purchasing advertising in the issue.

The initial request is usually followed up with something along the lines of “we do have a line between our editorial and advertising departments, but we also have to remember that we’re running a business too…”

Infuriatingly, these inquiries aren’t just coming from scam sites like The Leading Edge or Worldwide Business. I’ve been getting them from legit magazines, newspapers and websites, and even when I am working on something that’s purely editorial, it usually doesn’t take long for someone from the advertising side to reach out and ask if I’d be interested in purchasing an ad as well. I’ve even had publishers call me directly and tell me they keep editorial and advertising departments separate, but if I bought an ad, he’d “talk with the editor and make sure we got a story in there for you.” The worst scenario is when a reporter is interested in a story but is only willing to run it if you buy ad space, too.

Thanks to the popularity of native advertising and the shrinking of editorial departments, this pay-for-play approach is becoming more prevalent, and sadly, more accepted. There used to be a very clear separation of church and state, and now this line isn’t just blurred, it’s become almost non-existent.

For a PR guy like myself, this trend is disheartening for a number of reasons, not the least of which is it minimizes the work I do earning an authentic interest in my clients’ stories. No, the more concerning consequence of this mixing of church and state is the audience no longer knows the provenance of the content they’re consuming. Are those headphones really a best buy for Christmas, or did the publication include them because of that headphones ad that’s also in the issue? Is that thought leadership article really the work of a visionary, or is the author the CEO of a company that happened to do a media buy with that same publication?

In an era of “fake news,” Russian social media bots, and Bell Pottinger, this is a very dangerous development. What was once an outlier is now becoming more mainstream, and by fundamentally undermining the credibility of the media, this administration has created a self-fulfilling cycle of mistrust between the media and the public.

If the public no longer expects impartial reporting, then why should we even try? If the public is OK with pay-for-play content, then why wouldn’t we offer more of it?

The convergence of PR, marketing and advertising has only worsened the issue. While I may view these quid pro quo arrangements between advertising and editorial as abhorrent, many of my colleagues with marketing or advertising backgrounds celebrate it. Why wouldn’t they? They get the article, the editorial control, the timing and the impressions they want, all guaranteed for a dollar figure they can plan for versus paying someone like myself to try and earn that coverage with no guarantees. Add on surveys and studies that show the public doesn’t care if the content was paid or earned, and you’ve got an industry-wide ethical crisis on your hands.

What’s the solution? It’s going to take more than well-intentioned letters to the editor or codes of ethics to solve this problem. After all, the problem lies primarily with practitioners outside the confines of organizations like PRSA or CIPR. It’s marketers who view this as another extension of native advertising. It’s media buyers who think they’re doing PR people a favor by negotiating editorial as part of their ad buys. It’s CMOs who only look at the impact on their marketing campaign instead of the impact on their business.

Maybe Unilever’s threat will spur other brands to take a more active role in media ethics, but history tells me otherwise. As these walls between editorial and advertising tumble down, it’s become more and more difficult to spot pay-for-play content in the media, even for people in the industry like myself.

The answer must start and end with the general public. Call out lazy, biased reporting. Flag fake news as such. Check multiple sources. Report undisclosed sponsored content to the FTC. Pay for journalism so the media isn’t forced to rely on brand dollars to survive. A free and impartial press is integral to our democracy. Insist on it—for all our sakes.

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Omnichannel Marketing is the First Step, Not the End Game

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This post originally appeared in MediaPost.

Dominoes

True omnichannel marketing is about understanding how the dominoes fall across the entire organization, not just in marketing.

Congratulations on your integrated marketing plan, your omnichannel marketing strategy, your paid-earned-shared-owned media strategy — you’ve now completed the bare minimum of what customers expect.

Just because marketers have finally started to consistently create integrated cross-channel plans doesn’t mean we should toot our horns too much. After all, we’re the ones who embraced channel-specific media plans over integrated strategies and working with dozens of specialized agencies instead of one or two integrated agencies-of-record. The fact that we’re now unpacking these silos, because customers have demanded a more consistent experience, is simply the beginning.

This was a problem of our own doing. And rather than focusing on the real challenge — creating a consistent brand experience at all touchpoints — we focused too much on the how rather than the why.

Over the last few years, I’ve worked with plenty of clients, spoken at dozens of conferences, and connected with hundreds of colleagues. Unfortunately, a common thread has emerged – every customer touchpoint has become specialized and sophisticated. And while that’s made each channel more efficient and effective, it also results in a fundamental fracturing of the customer experience. In our rush to optimize every tweet, email, and click, we’ve created inconsistency and unpredictability not just for customers, but for people in the organization too.

When someone talks about “omnichannel marketing,” they’re usually talking about the channels marketing controls — social media, digital, TV, print, PR. The list goes on. Unfortunately, just because it doesn’t fall under marketing doesn’t mean it’s not a marketing channel. If you want to create a true omnichannel plan, you better make sure you’re also addressing channels that are supported by other departments. The following questions don’t have easy answers. But guess what? The customer doesn’t care about your politics. They care about the experience.

  • Before you start brainstorming the next big campaign, are there other departments doing something incredible that could be proof points?
  • How are you going to use internal communications to activate employees?
  • Have you equipped the customer service team with new talking points?
  • Does the investor relations team have new messaging for the next quarterly report?
  • Does the new campaign impact the advocacy issues your government relations team is tackling?
  • Are operations committed to making marketing a reality on a day-to-day level?
  • Is the C-suite aligned with how you measure success?
  • Is sales using the content you created? Or are they using what they’re comfortable with instead?
  • Can your IT team even create that microsite you’ve proposed?

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for cross-department collaboration challenges. The reality is it requires more human-to-human communication and conversation. It can’t be fixed via a memo from the CEO or an employee town hall meeting. It can’t be fixed with a steel cage wrestling match between the CMO, the CIO, and the CSO either. What it requires is a fundamental shift in marketing strategy. And marketing cannot be the sole owner and creator.

This may seem obvious but it’s become abundantly clear, to both employees and customers, that more often than not, “omnichannel strategies” really mean “consistency across a few different-channel strategies.” Let’s start creating true omnichannel strategies that address all of the channels available to us.

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Sometimes Simplicity Leads to Big Innovation

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This post originally appeared on Hanley Wood’s HIVE for Housing site.

Brands spend millions of dollars on innovation—establishing innovation labs, commissioning studies, and paying high-priced consultants—all to ensure they don’t become the next Kodak, Blockbuster, or Tower Records. From Tesla to Google to Amazon, tech companies are entering into new markets and disrupting brands that have controlled market share for decades. As a result, corporate R&D departments are spending millions to try to develop the next Instagram, Nest, or Echo so they aren’t the next “what not to do” casualty.

While your R&D team works on your company’s moonshots, remember that innovation isn’t always the result of millions of dollars or teams of dozens of people. There have been many innovations with much more humble beginnings. Dollar Shave Club was developed by a guy who was tired of buying razors from the drug store. Equipter was developed by a roofer who wanted a better way to remove old roofing shingles. Domino’s Pizza famously embraced the ingenuity of its employees in its “a great idea can come from anywhere” campaign, which touted the story of a new product, developed by a franchise owner in Ohio, that was then sold at locations across the country.

The most common difference between the corporately funded labs and these examples? The R&D teams focus on what will deliver the highest ROI whereas the others have a much simpler goal: to solve a problem. And the latter is something that every employee at every level at every company should be striving to do.

The home building category is ripe with opportunities for this kind of streamlined, simplified innovation. While the big brands invest millions in discovering the next billion-dollar idea, individual inventors and startups are busy identifying ways to help make the average builder’s job easier instead of worrying about what will make millions.

While the tech industry has made significant inroads into the home building industry, it has also opened up a world of opportunity for those builders. Technology, like the Amazon Echo and Nest Thermostat, have created entirely new homeowner behaviors, all with thousands of new data points.

If a builder would talk to my Echo, they’d hear an awful lot of my complaints as a homeowner and DIYer. There’s no shortage of terrible user experiences begging to be fixed:

  • In an era of apps and big data, why do HVAC inspectors still rely on stickers to track furnace maintenance?
  • Why don’t bolts have the size etched on top so you don’t have to test and try different sizes to see what fits?
  • Why do we have to play a guessing game to discover what’s behind our own walls? (I hate hearing the contractor tell me, “We won’t know for sure until we rip the walls down and see what’s inside!”)

This is the genius of Intuit’s “Follow Me Home” program. It forces the company’s engineers to understand the end user—how they’re using the software, what they like about it, what they wish it had, etc. It gives the Intuit team key insights that lead to small tweaks that have the ability to become a big success.

One way to get at the small, simple innovations is to bring in a new perspective. Remember, a great idea can come from anywhere. In an industry where customers are getting smarter and their expectations are climbing higher, home builders and housing developers should be striving for more innovation, both big and small.

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