My World Right Now

About a year ago, I wrote a post called Cataloging Time. It’s that time again in my world of retail marketing. Once again, I have to ask whether or not catalogs are a marketing tactic that is past its prime.

As the retail marketing person for a consumer goods company, I am responsible for making sure our product pages are prepared for any number of retailer catalogs being published for 2011. This can be master catalogs or supplements for specific categories, each one requiring a great deal of time and resource allocation to complete. I can only imagine the efforts by our retail partners who are receiving and compiling dozens and dozens of pages from product manufacturers around the world. What a task!

As a consumer and marketing professional, I receive catalogs and look through each and every one of them for ideas and creative brainstorming. I have to wonder how many other people do the same? Is the practice of reading catalogs still a common practice?

I especially ask this in today’s world of social media. Twitter accounts like Walmart direct consumers to websites for new product information on a regular basis. More and more time is spent fine-tuning and tweaking those same sites to ensure the right information is presented for consumers to make purchasing decisions. Product comparisons, search filters and so much more is made available online that cannot be easily handled in print catalogs.

While I’m spending a lot of time on those printed catalogs pages, another current project is implementing an e-commerce solution for our company where we can easily sell our products online to our BtoB customers as well as consumers. I wonder whether or not this is a better use of our time and resources?

We as a manufacturer have a gentleman’s agreement with our retail partners that we will only sell certain accessories directly to consumers. Everything else is pushed to retailers and consumers are directed to find a local store in which to make their purchase. Does this make sense in today’s business environment?

This is where my head is right now. Any thoughts?

Event ROI: To Attend or Not to Attend?

I am constantly reminded of the need for strong planning on the front end of any project. A colleague of mine calls the opposite “stream of consciousness planning”. It’s amazing to me how many times programs, campaigns and projects are put into place without a rhyme or reason as to why it’s going to be done in the first place except to increase sales. While I understand that is an important reason, the question remains, “How exactly are you going to increase sales simply by attending that trade show?”.

Nothing should ever be implemented without a clear strategy being discussed and laid out first.

From a communications perspective, I’ve learned quite a bit in the past few years about measuring return on investment against the activities in which your organization chooses to participate.

The most recent examples I’ve got in my head pertain to trade shows. Those pesky industry and association events we all feel we must attend each year. But my question is whether or not you have set up a way to measure your attendance and determine whether the show is truly valuable? I’ve had many people tell me over the years that companies should attend particular shows simply because it’s always been done, but I have a really difficult time accepting that as a valid reason to continue attending. In my view, it’s critically important to gather information, such as revenue targets, to determine whether or not the show makes financial sense. Companies should not make an assumption about the value of a show simply based on history.

While I understand there is a brand awareness being built through attendance at these shows and events, it’s still possible to develop an ROI plan around awareness. It’s our job as marketing professionals to figure out the right metrics for our organization to make the most of the dollars we’ve been given to manage.

What are your thoughts?

The Importance of Listening

listening earIn this social media world, the importance of listening has come to the forefront. Platforms such as Twitter allow easy monitoring of what is being said about a person, a brand or an issue. If a person or company isn’t “listening”, then the point of social media is lost on them. It’s easy to monitor on Twitter with hashtags, Twitter search and third party tools such as TweetDeck for searching keywords. However, I don’t know that the importance of listening translates as well to the real world. A challenge we all have as communicators is figuring out the right way to get our message across and through the noise the bombards us all each day.

I’m sure we can all count the number of times we’ve said something to our spouse, friends or colleagues only to discover that the message was never received. Or do you remember playing “Telephone” as a child? The game where a message starts at one end of the line and by the time it reaches the other end, everyone gets a kick out of how it changed. While we enjoyed this as a game, the real world isn’t quite the desired setting for mixed messages. This typically leads to repeating yourself and getting frustrated with the non-listener.

As a communications professional, I’ve studied numerous theories that highlight all the ways in which a message can be misinterpreted or ignored by the recipient, depending on the noise elements that come into play. Every time I put a plan together, I think through ways in which the message may get lost. I look at past program details and I ask myself simple questions such as — Are emails opened or ignored? — Would a direct mail piece have more impact than an electronic piece? — Is there something going on to physically distract from the message? (i.e. activity at a trade show)

Besides the challenge of whether or not a message is reaching the intended audience, another challenge we face is whether or not there is comprehension. Someone may acknowledge receipt of the message with a nod or response but did the message actually click. Did the recipient actually understand what was being said and will it have the expected impact?

The social media world intrigues me because it does make listening easier in ways, but it also makes it more difficult. It’s yet another channel that we must understand and become well-versed in explaining to non-users. It’s the latest trend, and everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. But how many are actually listening to what is being said? And, with social media tools such as Twitter having 140 characters limits, how many people are truly understanding what is being said?

What’s Wrong with PR?

questionmark2I started reading Putting the Public Back in Public Relations, the new book by Brian Solis and Deirdre Breckinridge. I’m not too far into it yet, but they pose a good question early on: What’s wrong with PR? Of course, when you ask what’s wrong, it makes sense that you then offer solutions. While the book suggests several options — some from the agency perspective, some from the corporate side — I started thinking about what I perceive as being wrong with our industry.

1. PR pros spend too much time telling people what we’re not, instead of focusing on what we are. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard PR pros tell people that we are not advertising, marketing, or that PR is more than publicity. Rather than take that approach, why don’t we spend more time educating companies and individuals about what PR is and how we can help businesses succeed. This is absolutely critical for getting a seat at the proverbial table. Defining our role in an organization requires us to look at our profession creatively. When someone asks what we do, don’t respond with a long list of generalizations or tactics. We strive to ensure our audiences know our messaging so why don’t we all spend a little time thinking about our own elevator speech. And make it good. Then you are prepared when someone asks “what is PR?”.

2. PR pros have limited business knowledge. Business owners, no matter what size, want to see financial return on their PR investment. I’ve been in meetings over the years where PR professionals tell CEOs that it’s difficult to measure PR’s success outside of number of media clips. That’s not true, and it’s not what CEOs want to hear. Despite our protests, PR must have an impact on sales for business owners and management to see a value in what we do, especially if we don’t do a good job with our explanations in point #1 above.  In my career, I have seen very few PR pros who have solid business knowledge. PR represents the entire business, and that means we need to understand it inside and out. We need to know the competition. We need to be well-versed on the business plan and how our communication efforts translate into that comprehensive plan. This also means we must focus more attention on research and evaluation. Take the time to learn. Ask questions of everyone. It makes our jobs easier, I promise.

2. PR pros focus on tactics rather than strategy. Too many PR pros start the conversation with potential clients or management teams with a laundry list of tactics that need to be done. That’s the wrong approach. We must understand the business objectives for why something is being done, and that means we have to build the right strategy to make our chosen tactics work. The laundry list is dependent on the strategies. If every single tactic doesn’t translate to a strategy, then we need to go back to the drawing board. This also goes along with point #2 above — understanding the business means we are able to drive strategy on the PR/communication side. Conducting the necessary research beforehand and then following everything we do with evaluation to determine our success is extremely important.

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I’m pretty sure we can all agree that PR is not just the art of schmoozing, but that may be how a number of outsiders perceive us. It’s time to change that perception.

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts.

The Case of the Misunderstood APR

*** Disclaimer: I am an APR as well as co-chair of the PRSA Tulsa accreditation committee.

I’ve posted about the Accredited in Public Relations process before. I earned my APR in 2004 after initial support from a former boss and then my personal decision that this was an important step for me professionally. It joins earning my MBA on the list of growth and education actions to complete.

There always seems to be discussion about the value of earning your APR and what it means professionally. I’m not going to rehash what I said in my earlier post. My reasons for earning my APR can be found there, but I did want to take a moment to share where I think the industry as a whole is falling short.

I am an active member of PRSA, serving in leadership roles at both the local and district levels. PRSA touts earning an APR as a valuable step in professional growth, but I’m not sure the association has done a good job of truly proving its’ worth. An argument I hear over and over for why people choose to not pursue this certification is that the letters mean absolutely nothing outside of the PR business and, in some cases, have very little meaning within PR circles.

If we expect the accreditation to mean something, then PRSA, the UAB and other organizations must work harder at proving the ROI. Take a long look at the process and identify ways to  justify the expense and time it takes as well as exhibit the benefits for the business. Business leaders expect bottomline results, and it shouldn’t be hard to compare the PR results of someone with an APR and one without. The process forces individuals to think strategically and more in line with what the business needs to succeed.

To me, it makes sense for an accreditation process that brings the need for research and measurement to the forefront to apply the same steps to its’ own promotion and build a plan according to what it means for those outside the industry as well as PR pros. What do you think?

Who Represents Marketing?

There have been several interesting posts recently about who owns the social media function. One of those posts generated a conversation on Twitter between myself, @mandy_vavrinak and @patrickallmond, and I started thinking. Dangerous I know. 🙂

The comment was made that PR or Marketing should manage the social media function, and if people using social media are not in Marketing then they need to be moved there. I don’t agree with that statement because I believe everyone in a company represents Marketing in some form or fashion.

Organizational structures are different with every company. Some have Marketing and a separate PR department, while others combine the two functions into a single department. I know there are arguments as to which is the ideal situation, but that’s not the point of this post. I think we can all agree that there must be an area in the company that focuses on strategic communication, messaging and the management of the plan’s execution. I would be surprised if we didn’t also agree that there needs to be an understanding that everyone within a company represents the brand, and therefore becomes an extension of the Marketing department.

Marketing’s job is to work with senior management to develop the right strategic communications plan that works with the business’ objectives. It is our job to not only determine how that message is to be shared with external audiences but, more importantly, how it is to be shared with internal audiences.

Whether you work in IT, Engineering, Customer Service, Sales or HR, every single person should recognize the talking points that matter most to the company for a given year or period of time. If you can’t walk down the hall and ask every one you see what those points are and get the  response you desire from your team members, then you are not doing your job as a communicator, in my opinion. Somewhere in the communication chain is a breakdown that needs to be addressed.

That’s not to say that the message is so scripted that there isn’t room for personality or individuality. However, a solidly prepared plan provides a foundation on which all conversations can be held. The company’s communication and social media policies must be shared throughout the organization.

I was fortunate at one company to work with a President who worked very hard to share the business and marketing strategies with all employees. He would host town halls, luncheons, manager meetings, etc. to create the opportunity to share but also listen to what employees had to say. If there was a disconnect between what he was saying and what he heard then he would come back to us in Marketing and figure out new and different ways of conveying the message.

Courtesy of Google Images

Courtesy of Google Images

Your employees are one of the most important assets for your brand. While products and services evolve, the core foundation will remain your employees, and allowing them to develop the knowledge, subject matter expertise and loyalty needed to do their jobs properly plays an integral role in how your brand is perceived in the marketplace. This means too that you are empowering others in the organization to execute on the communications plan, giving up a measure of control over what might be said, to build an employee base who believes in the brand and feels as if they have a true stake in the organization. The key for the business and for us as strategic communicators is to train others to use the available tools well and understand the messages completely. Our success as marketers depends on it.

What are your thoughts?

Do You Act or Continue Status Quo?

I recently conducted a survey of our consumer base for my day job. It led to some interesting findings about how consumers make buying decisions, especially in today’s tough economy. However, the most fascinating part of this process to me centered on how well the organization would respond to the feedback received.

The biggest question I had through writing the survey questions and the weeks of collecting data was whether or not we as a company would act on the information obtained. Or would we let the information dry up in the vault and continue down the same path?

I have found that one of the biggest mistakes made by businesses is overlooking the need for research. For those who do take the time and conduct research, the mistake then lies in not using the data to make strategic decisions. During my career, I’ve grown to dislike being told that the business participates in certain activities because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” What sense does that make? If you’re going to invest in sponsorships, advertising, PR activities, etc., then doesn’t it make more business sense to understand which of those tactics work best, where is the greatest return on investment?

In my case, the consumer data we gathered is being used to streamline our marketing activities. What does your organization do when it has valuable research data? Do you act as needed or instead continue the status quo?