From the category archives:

Best Practices

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I’ve been a content marketing and social media professional for roughly the last six years. I was, and continue to be, excited about the potential of social media and content marketing to change the business world for the better. But these days, I cringe when I go on Facebook or Twitter. I find myself pondering a strange and uncomfortable question:

As human beings, are we ultimately unsuited to social media?

Self righteous indignation has become America’s national pastime. (Schadenfreude is a close second.) I’m not just talking about people complaining on Facebook about bad service. People really enjoy piling on when someone else makes a mistake. And a lot of websites and Facebook pages seem completely devoted to amplifying and broadcasting those mistakes.

Here’s an example: a few weeks ago I saw a status update from a young woman who said something disparaging about people who join the military. It was unfair, unwarranted, disrespectful and showed no gratitude for the sacrifice that the volunteer military makes to help keep us safe.

But ultimately, so what? I doubt more than a handful of people would’ve seen it if it hadn’t been picked up and spread. Of all the people I’ve met in my life who give less of a damn what idiots think of them, serving military personnel and veterans are at or near the top of that list. Regardless, one young woman said something stupid and thousands of people piled on, to the point where I was genuinely worried she might be getting death threats.

Is this really how we want to use a worldwide network of information and connection?

As for content marketing, we may as well replace the word “content” with “linkbait.” Yesterday, I saw a video showing people they were using little paper ketchup cups the wrong way. As I said when I shared it on Facebook, “If you’re creating content for people too stupid to use ketchup, how long are you going to stay in business?”

Marketers are seeing the value of content, but predictably have galloped right past the point of diminishing returns to the point of absurdity and eventually, destruction. How tired are you of headlines like, “This one guy did this one thing and what happened next is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened, and maybe somebody exploded, but actually they didn’t”?

Does anyone really think this is sustainable? Does anyone care?

We do know what is sustainable. We’ve known it in our hearts and in our guts, and we can finally prove it: giving your audience useful, interesting, well-written content that amuses and engages them while at the same time helps solve their business problems.

Why don’t more people do that all the time? Again, there’s a simple answer: because doing it is hard. But it’s the only thing that works if you want to build trust, build a reputation and build relationships.

I hope we can survive the coming backlash. Social media went through a backlash because it never lived up to the hype piled upon it by people who really didn’t know what it was. The same thing is happening with content marketing, and I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

If you want to do one thing to help, share good examples of useful, interesting content. The more we do that, the more we can all help prove that quality will win in the end.

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Today in North Carolina there was an Amber Alert for a one-year-old girl in a stolen car. The headlines in local media were along the lines of, “Search continues for missing High Point girl.”

I first saw the story on my iPhone, and I’m sure many others viewed it on a mobile device. To get the most potentially-important information, namely the description and license plate of the vehicle, you had to click through to read the story. I did, but I wonder how many others did.

The most helpful headline would have been, “Missing child in stolen white Suburban, NC license BJXXXXX.” (I’m not putting the actual plate number here as the girl has, thankfully, been found.) That would have provided useful information to someone who only read the headline.

In content marketing, we talk all the time about how to make our content easily consumable on mobile devices. Businesses are adapting their content for mobile consumption. It’s time for the media to do the same, even if just in cases of urgent need. A teaser headline may get more click throughs, but it may also make it more likely that vital information is ignored.

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I’m at the Back to the Blog event at Duke, organized by Anton Zuiker and Cara Rousseau. One attendee just asked how to find time to blog, which is one of the most common questions I’ve been asked over the past five years. I have a number of standard responses:

*Look for content you’re already creating, from white papers to long emails, and repurpose them.

*Look at what you’re doing that isn’t working and stop doing it to free up more time.

*A blog post doesn’t have to be a white paper; a short, interesting post or a link to another post your audience will find useful is enough.

Yet I still do most of my blogging (the little I do these days) late at night. I have a job where I could easily justify blogging during the workday, but I don’t. I write after my wife and son go to bed (or sometimes before they wake up). I’ve always done my best creative work late at night, whether on this blog, my book or presentations for work.

I wonder if that’s one of the reasons people feel they don’t have time to blog, because writing is a creative and personal activity that we want to do well. I have to be in the right mood to blog well and enjoy it. I don’t feel that way about other work-related tasks. It’s not as though I’ve ever thought, “I’m too tired to come up with a clever formula for this spreadsheet.”

One of the big challenges I’ve set for myself is to blog short items more frequently, but I don’t. Instead, I post more to Facebook (which leads to another question for another time).

I have abandoned some of the niceties I used to observe on this blog, notably posting photos and adding links. I used asterisks above instead of the HTML for bullets. (Did you notice? Do you care?) Those things don’t take that much time, but they take enough time (and are hard enough to do by mobile) that giving them up feels freeing.

But still it’s easier to post to Facebook, and I do it more often than I post here by a factor of, what, 100? I wonder how much of that is because blogging feels like Writing, with a capital W, and writing is a skill I respect and don’t want to devalue.

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John from KOne Limo in Atlanta I traveled to Atlanta recently for a meeting with customers. I booked a car service since it was the same price as renting a car, and required less GPS goofery on my part. I looked on Yelp and found K-One Limo, with six of the most positive reviews I’ve ever seen. Initially I was skeptical, because the reviews were so over the top, but I booked the trip.

John (pictured) is the owner of K-One and met me at the airport. He called to make sure I had arrived, directed me to the right place to meet him, and then quickly and graciously re-adjusted when I doofed my way to the wrong place. He was driving an immaculate Lincoln Navigator and was dressed way better than I was, even though I was on my way to meet customers.

We talked all the way to the hotel, and all the way back, about his life, his family and his philosophy of customer service. Basically he goes out of his way to remove all obstacles and annoyances from his passengers. When he learns their preferences he accommodates them. One Yelp reviewer said John always has an iPhone charger ready to replenish his travel-drained phone.

He also understands the value of quiet competence. When things are going wrong (as you can imagine, an Atlanta limo driver deals with a lot of delayed flights), it doesn’t do any good to flap. John remains calm and professional, which I guarantee you is more reassuring than sweaty apologies and mad dashes through traffic.

I think John could do anything. I wish he ran pretty much every service organization, like, everywhere. I truly enjoy meeting people who are absolutely on top of their game and happy doing what they do. I’ve had that pleasure a handful of times in my life.

When you meet someone who is truly happy and successful, it’s usually because they can’t imagine doing anything but what they do. I never worried, for instance, about Jim Goodnight selling SAS when I worked there, because it was obvious that what Jim Goodnight loved doing was running SAS. If you want another great example, read a biography of Richard Branson.

I suppose I should end with some kind of motivational challenge to you to find the thing you love, but we’ll take that as written.

Who have you met who is really on top of his or her game? What did you learn?

image by me

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A survey of Inc. 500 companies shows the first decline in corporate blogging since 2007. Many are switching their content efforts to Facebook. Big mistake, as Janet Meiners Thaeler
points out in the post linked above. I agree with everything she says.

And here’s another way to think about it; Facebook is a valuable channel, but it’s not the Internet. It’s a walled garden, as we’ve come to call it. If you put your content solely on Facebook, you’re saying, “I don’t want my content on the Web, just this one place that can only be found one way by one group of people.” (Even if there are 800 million of them.)

As Janet suggests (and many of us have been advising companies for years), publish to your blog, then share the link in all your other networks.

As long as people still search the Web, a company blog should be at the core of your content strategy.

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I recently got a robocall call from a home security company, offering me a free system so they could get a foothold in my neighborhood. I considered it for a moment, and then hung up, even though I want a home security system. Why?

Because I assumed they were lying. Do they really mean free, or are they just waiving some fee? Do I really think it’s going to end up costing me nothing? Clearly not.

Every time I get on an airplane, the pilot lies to me.

If there’s anything we can do to make your flight more enjoyable, please don’t hesitate to ask.

I’ve rung the call bell exactly once in all my miles of air travel, to ask a flight attendant to throw away a half-full cup of water. I had a two-year-old on my hands and nowhere to put the cup. She glared at me as though I had asked her to disrobe and sing show tunes.

How do you think your boss would react if you went into your next performance review and said, “I did everything I could possibly have done as well as anyone could possibly have done it. I am flawless and perfect.”

Yet that’s what most companies do with their marketing and communications. And when a real issue comes up, only then do they admit there might be something possibly that could maybe be ever so slightly better, and now that it’s been raised to their attention, they’ll address it immediately.

Your customers and prospects, especially the ones you want to attract and keep, know as much or more about your products and services as you do. They know the flaws as well as the benefits. They know how you stack up against your competitors. They know if you’re cheaper or more expensive. They know if you’re easier to use, or provide more value.

In every industry I’ve ever worked in, our prospects were extremely intelligent and well informed. When they came to us, they had done their research. They didn’t want a sales pitch; they wanted an honest exploration of whether or not our products could meet their needs. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work for companies who felt confident responding honestly, knowing that we would prevail.

Why is “We’re only human” an excepted tenet of life, but a last resort and an admission of failure when a company says it?

What’s the worst thing that could happen if you admitted to your customers that you know the truth as well as they do, are sincerely working to make things better and value their input in the process?

Could that really be a bad thing?

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I’m a little frustrated right now. Over the last several years, quite a few people have asked me for advice about getting into social media. Some of them are good friends, and a lot of them are people with a professional communications or marketing background.

My advice has been the same for the last several years: if you’re a professional communicator or marketer, you must understand and use social media if you want to stay relevant in your profession. Some of them have heeded that advice. Some of them haven’t.

And that’s fine. I have no problem with people ignoring my advice. I am far from always right. Just take a look at my resume. Or ask The Mrs.

Here’s why I’m frustrated: if some of those people had taken my advice when I gave it to them, I would be hiring them right now. I need to find smart, resourceful people who understand the enterprise business world, and also understand how social media fits into it. Those people are few and far between, and the really good ones have really good jobs.

The people I’m thinking of as I write this post have all of the requisite skills I need, except for experience in social media, which they could have developed on their own in the time since I first gave them that advice.

You don’t need to be doing social media as part of your job in order to build your own understanding of how companies use social media, and in the process make yourself more valuable as an employee. There are dozens of webinars, blogs, e-books and podcasts—free and paid—to help you learn more about enterprise social media.

When I am evaluating a potential hire for my team, I am willing to except a lack of professional social media experience if they can show me a well-written blog, a well developed LinkedIn profile with recommendations, and an active Twitter presence that addresses business issues. If you can show me that you understand business and know how to engage with people and to write, I know I can teach you the rest of it.

So here are my recommendations for any communications professional who wants to stay relevant:

1. Start a blog

Start a blog on WordPress.com and write about the industry you’re in or want to be in. I’ve said this before, but if you can show me a blog post that I wish you had written on our company blog, that carries more weight than all the superlatives you can cram into a static resume. I hired somebody this year in part because she had already written an informative, well-written post targeted at the audience I need to reach. I didn’t need to wonder if she could do the work; she had already done it.

2. Build your LinkedIn presence

Build up your LinkedIn profile with people in the industry you want to be active in. Get recommendations. Get active in the LinkedIn groups that discuss your field, and show me how you’ve added value in those groups.

3. Develop your Twitter, Facebook and Google+ presence

I don’t need to see 5,000 followers. I need to see you understand how businesses are using these networks to meet their bottom-line objectives. You can show me that by showing how you are using these networks to meet your career objectives. Then I’ll know you can do it once you’re hired.

4. Show a sense of wonder and curiosity

The people who are the most successful and interesting in social media are the ones who just know, without someone having to prove it to them, how cool this stuff is. They knew it the moment they first saw Facebook, or an iPhone, or Twitter. They hate the idea of being left behind. We are in the midst of a revolution, and I want to work with people who know that and are excited to be part of it.

If building your personal networks feels like a chore, either you’re in the wrong business or you haven’t dug in enough to see the real excitement, wonder and value.

Sure, go ahead and question if you really need to be on Google+. But get on it anyway and see what it’s like. No, you don’t have to be on every network. But the people who feel a tingle when they hear about a new network and think, “I really need to get on there before someone grabs my username,” are the people with the attitude I value most.

I know it’s a tough job market out there. I know there are a lot of smart, capable people who are unemployed, underemployed or in jobs that are going nowhere. Social media is not going away. Don’t limit your opportunities by leaving yourself behind.

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I picked up my iPhone 4 yesterday and one of the coolest new features is the Siri personal assistant. A lot has been written about this already, but I discovered something cool about the speech to text feature last night that I thought I would share.

Siri lets you compose Twitter updates, Facebook updates, notes, text messages and even blog posts (I’m using it to write this) by voice. When I first tried it, I was disappointed to see that it didn’t include any punctuation. As a writer and former English major, that bothered me.

Then I tried the approach that I’ve learned to use with all Apple products; I tried the simplest thing I could think of.

To add punctuation, just speak the punctuation you want to add.

To compose that sentence, I said “To add punctuation comma just speak the punctuation you want to add period.”

It’s an extremely elegant solution, and one that has allowed me to write this (properly punctuated) blog post in about three minutes, almost exclusively using my voice.

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car lot signI just got a call from my local Subaru dealer. “We notice it’s been four years since you bought your Subaru and we just wanted to check in to see how everything is going.” It doesn’t take much to translate that into, “It’s a slow sales month and we’re going back through our records and calling people who might be ready to buy a new car.”

This is the only time in that four years that anyone from the dealership has contacted me, other than to send oil change coupons or follow up on service visits. Their attempt to “engage” with me felt spammy and one-sided, in no small part because it came out of the blue. I’m sure the strategy is “contact customers who might be ready to buy,” but in practice it becomes “contact customers every four years and start over again.”

By the time the sales process was complete, I had spent a fair amount of time with the salesperson, and we’d developed a bit of a rapport. That vanished the moment I drove off the lot. I can’t remember his name. If I wanted to buy a new car today, I wouldn’t have a clue how to find him. “Hi, I was in here four years ago and bought an Outback from a white guy, kind of young, about yay high, blue shirt. Is he around?”

The fact is, I did buy a new car about four months ago. And I test drove a Subaru. I suspect, knowing me, I probably talked about it online. If Whitey McBlueshirt had stayed connected with me, I might have bought a Subaru WRX from him instead of a VW GTI from another guy who dropped off the face of the Earth as soon as the ink was dry on the contract.

If you engage with your customers in an honest and mutually-beneficial way, they will appreciate it. If you build a relationship, there are many tools available to help you maintain it. If you repackage traditional, hackneyed, one-sided sales techniques with a veneer of “engagement,” all but the most naive will see through you.

image by s myers

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roadsign for Fail RoadPeter Shankman has a post today about an ill-conceived comment posted to 7-11′s Facebook page. I haven’t researched it to find out what their reaction is, but we can guess based on past experience. They will issue an apology, and someone might even get fired.

Peter’s blog is full of comments from people discussing whether the comment is offensive, whether we’re being too PC and what this slip-up says about 7-11′s social media policies and corporate voice.

The issue raises lots of questions, but as to the question of “How did this happen?”, I can answer that one:

A person made a joke in an effort to amuse other people. It didn’t work.

Don’t suppose that’s ever happened to you?

Folks, we’ve got to get used to this. If we want brands to use social media and be more edgy, more interesting, more topical and more timely, they are going to screw up every now and then. If every screwup becomes a new target for America’s favorite pastime of self-righteous indignation, brands are going to stop trying.

Do we want every company communication in social media to be boring, bland and homogenized? If so, then let’s keep attacking them for every misstep.

When I worked for a small independent record label and music distribution company, I accidentally sent a newsletter to one of our artist lists where I got the name of his most recent album wrong. I immediately sent a follow-up email apologizing for the mistake and blaming it on a long day.

In the interim, at least three people wrote back calling me some variation of an idiot who deserved to lose his job for this grievous error. One of them, on reading my apology, wrote back again. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’ve had a long day, too. There was no need for me to be so unpleasant.”

What happened to change his mind? My first email, in his mind, came from a faceless company. My second came from a person, and he could empathize with the idea of a person making a mistake.

Keep that in mind the next time some corporate tweet or status update rubs you the wrong way. It probably wasn’t written by a committee, but by a person trying his or her best.

image by fireflythegreat

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