Strategy


Big PicturenbDuring recessionary times there is more green lost than just money. The recently released CDW 2009 Energy Efficient IT Report shows that as IT budgets get cut, so does the importance of energy efficiency. This is a far cry from 18 months ago when you couldn’t avoid the green topic. Each day it seemed a handful of companies launched green initiatives while vendors touted their new green solutions.

Our work with B2B technology companies requires us to step back and look at the big picture—how do our actions today impact our client’s business 6,9,12, or even 18 months from now? While the pace of innovation and information delivery may travel faster than we can blink, the ROI from new investments rarely zooms along as quick. This instant gratification has clouded the judgment of some and the big picture is completely missed.

The CDW report highlights just that, the need for instant gratification. Cut now at the expense of what might be saved/made in the future. We see this in many industries from manufacturing to hospitality to transportation. What is the impact going to be on companies that quickly shed costs now when the economic environment improves and they are playing catch up? Or when government regulation, such as the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, forces companies to reduce their carbon footprint?

This is by no means limited to energy efficiency. For one of our clients, Infor, we have focused a lot of editorial on the long-term benefits innovative technology can provide companies across several industries. For example, utilizing technology to develop long-term employee plans, maximize the use of their skills, help align the workforce to meet the changing business environment, and minimize the need for mass layoffs. The long-term benefit? Retaining the talent you have spent so long training, minimized ramp up when orders start flocking in and employee / employer work satisfaction.

Marketing, something near and dear to me, gets hit hard anytime the economy goes south. What I’ve noticed in my career is that the companies that kept marketing alive during the tough times became the established voices during the upswing. These companies saw and understood the big picture. They seized the opportunity and the quiet vacancies left by their competitors to establish a foothold in the market. When budgets returned, competitors were busy ramping up their communications and marketing activities (developing updated messages, 6 – 12 month plans, filling the pipelines, etc), while the other companies were firing on all 8 (err, let’s be green here), 4 cylinders and taking mindshare and eventually customers.

It is sort of the chicken and egg question. Unsure how long an economic recovery will take, many purchasing managers, finance managers and CFOs are in a bind. There are definitely two sides to every argument, but I do believe those that make the leap will see great rewards for their efforts.

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more-moneySince the first signs of a recession loomed in late 2007, the PR industry has been quick to point out reasons why companies should not cut their PR budgets. Apparently, those arguments fell on deaf ears as PR spending has dropped 11 percent.

Well, we are now deep into this recession and while some say we have reached, or are nearing, the bottom it is still pretty clear there is a long way to go before the economy fully corrects itself. Where does your PR budget stand during a transitionary period? Do you keep the status quo, cut back, or move forward? I think it is pretty obvious where I am going – push forward, full steam ahead!!!

In all seriousness, this is a time to start reinvesting. In speaking with many marketing directors, spending cuts are still in full swing. These guys are down, not quite out, but getting close. What’s more, they are leaving holes in the conversation all over the place. It’s time to take advantage of their silence and walk over them. Do you stop running your pattern because a defender fell down? No. You run, catch the football and try to score the winning touchdown. You wouldn’t even think of stopping, much less look back, so why are so many companies still in this wait-and-see mode? Wait too long and you’ll see your competition get up and go whizzing by.

Why is PR important now?
Opportunity: Your competition is likely not making near as much noise as they once did. This means there is a gap to fill. Go fill it. Speaking up when your competitors aren’t greatly increases your share of voice in your industry.

The Need for Content: Most conversations I have with reporters focus on the need for story ideas and content. The economy has been brutal on the media industry and they are being asked to take on the job roles of several people. Wearing so many different hats, they’re turning to their trusted sources for ideas and contributed pieces.

Information Hungry Customers: Buyers are scrutinizing every purchase decision, conducting as much research as possible, and PR helps disseminate information about your product or service, influences the influencers, and gets your brand noticed.

Secure Your Position: Timing is crucial in so many aspects of business. While it may not be the best time to launch an IPO, it is time to set the stage for thought leadership and industry awareness. When companies and consumers start buying again, do you want to be playing catch-up or already be in the limelight?

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Today’s economy has made many of us very price conscious; however, our buying habits are still swayed by brand perception and image. In the grocery store you may look at the store brand and then find your eyes wandering over to the premium brand as your brain ponders – what really is the difference? After our minds wrestle with this dilemma, you make a choice and justify it.

“Money is tight; Publix Rice Cereal is no different than Rice Crispies.” (Really, it tastes the same and still goes Snap!, Crackle!, Pop!)
or
“Philadelphia cream cheese tastes so much better than the generic brand; it is worth the extra 82 cents.”

B2B buying decisions are quite a bit more complicated but still rely, especially in the early stages, on perception and brand awareness. The first step is usually to make the short list. This comes from recommendations based on the reputation of your product or service and brand awareness. In essence, you have to be found and seen as a respectable and forward thinking company. This starts with your people, or more accurately, your spokespeople.

Great spokespeople have a knack for entertaining and engaging any audience regardless of the topic. Not everyone is born with this talent. What companies need to do is find people who are passionate about the business, industry and product. Someone who will enthusiastically stand behind what they are saying. I have worked with several of these people and, through specific thought leadership campaigns, helped develop them into sought after speakers who command the respect of the media and industry. Here are some tips on how you can do this at your company:

1) Find the right spokesperson – Your spokesperson should be engaging, extremely knowledgeable and able to discuss complex topics in language that can be understand by a broad audience. Keep in mind, your best spokesperson is not always going to be the one who wants to be in the spotlight.

2) Training – No matter how well a person speaks in a casual environment, put them on a public stage on or the phone with a reporter and the nerves can come out. Go through a full day training session to work out the kinks. This is time well spent and pays great dividends.

3) Get out there – Briefings with the press and analyst communities (don’t forget the analysts!), speaking engagements and byline articles.

4) Commentary – Find news and trends relevant to your industry and provide commentary. Show the industry you know what is going on and have an expert opinion.

5) No Sales Pitches – If you want to establish credibility and become a sought after spokesperson, stay far away from sales pitches and avoid the Death by PowerPoint syndrome. PowerPoint is a crutch that should be avoided, especially during media interviews.

6) Patience – Being considered an expert does not happen overnight; it is a gradual process to build the industry’s trust and confidence. Give it time and make sure your spokesperson is actively engaged.

Now, don’t get me wrong. For all of this to work, you also need to offer a great product. However, without the right spokesperson to align business wisdom with industry intelligence, that product can sit idle in a warehouse never to be seen again.

“Four out of 5 dentists recommend Trident for their patients who chew gum.”

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Before the advent of the DVR (digital video recorder aka TiVo), many of us watched similar commercials over and over again. From chewing gum and antacid to cereal companies, it seemed like everyone relied on third parties to lend credibility to their message.

As the volume of news continues to grow, your message has a good chance of getting lost.  Third party references can become a differentiator and help you climb above the noise. In fact, it is no longer good enough to just state your case; you need evidence or references that will support your claim and help you deliver the message to a broad audience.

Analysts make it their job to understand the companies and products in their respective industries and provide unbiased analysis of each. However, if they don’t know who you are they cannot tell anyone about you or include your company in their research and analysis. Forrester Analyst Jeremiah Owyang outlines several benefits of PR for startups in his career blog. Well worth the read.

Public relations and analyst relations should not operate in silos. A fully integrated program can garner a lot of positive attention for a company, not to mention provide the perception of a well-oiled machine at work. Further, bridging the gap between AR and PR maximizes a company’s investment in its communications strategy through consistency of key messages and internal collaboration.  Analysts can provide a sounding board for new messages and help companies gain buy-in before publicly releasing a new product. Also, press today frequently want to speak with an analyst before they write about a company or product. Those that are unable to provide analyst references when asked can likely watch their share of ink go to a company who can bring the full story.

question-confusionIn conversations with many of my contacts in the media, they express frustration with the meaningless news that crosses the wires and floods their inboxes every day. Why is it that so many companies distribute press releases with little to no value to them? Even in today’s world of social media, the press release remains a viable and important tool to deliver quality news that will generate interest from the media.

Some companies use press releases as a sales tool, some even set quotas for the number of releases a month or quarter in hopes of increasing brand awareness. This is not a good PR strategy. This practice may have started during the dotcom boom, when companies flooded the market with so-called news in an effort to influence venture capitalists and other stakeholders. But these are different times that call for a more strategic approach to PR initiatives.

It may seem basic, but it’s called a press release because it is designed to communicate directly to the press, specifically, relevant, timely, and exciting news. The media doesn’t cover tradeshow participation, every new hire and the smallest update to a product, even though those activities are important to the company and its business objectives. If a company wants to tout a new product capability that is important to a handful of customers but not likely to generate media interest, it is much more effective to develop a marketing program that highlights it directly to those customers.

Here are two simple suggestions for companies who want an effective press release program.

Steady Pipeline: You want to have a steady flow of news that fits the size of your company and the business you are in. This also means, when available, you should space out your news so you do not have lulls that can create speculation.

News Value: Ask yourself what you are announcing and if the media will care. Have you ever read a story on your topic in that publication? Editors are not interested in your tradeshow participation. If you are launching a new product, make sure your announcement is more than just a user interface enhancement and talks about tangible benefits a reporter can wrap a story around.

Remember, just because a company issues a lot of news does not mean the press is paying attention, brand recognition is increasing, or customer confidence is improving. There is a lot of noise out there and press releases need to cut through that clutter and stand out—make it memorable.