Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Black Thursday: Forget the Turkey and Your Family and Go Buy More Stuff!!!

Will our ever-growing obsession with Buying More Stuff end up turning the entire 24-hour period now known as Thanksgiving Day into Black Thursday?

Probably. And how depressing. At least The Miami Herald’s brilliant political cartoonist, Jim Morin, managed to convey the craziness with a little humor.

Last year, major retailers including Walmart, Toys R’ US and Target threw their doors open on November 22nd to throngs of holiday deal-hunters. Consumers by the millions shook off the post-turkey tryptophan lethargy and dashed away shortly after Thanksgiving dinner, afraid of missing bargains on the most in-demand gift items.

And that meant possibly hundreds of thousands of low-paid employees had to forsake their family celebration to be on retail sales floors, ready to smile and cheerfully risk a serious bodily injury to greet the oncoming stampede. Take a look at this disturbing video of a mob scene inside a Walmart store as crazed shoppers nearly climb over one another, screaming and having tugs-of-war over marked-down smartphones. 

Looks like a cattle round-up gone horribly awry, doesn’t it? Well, it also looks like this year a handful of sensible retailers are saying no to the insanity and keeping their stores closed until it’s actually Black Friday.

Apple CEO Tim Cook recently announced that, with the exception of three stores in New York City, Las Vegas and Hawaii, all Apple stores will be closed on Thanksgiving so employees can relax and spend the holiday with their families. Several other retailers, including Nordstrom, Costco, Marshall’s and Home Depot have also decided to buck the Black Thursday trend.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I feel that it’s an easy decision to make,” BJ’s Wholesale Club CEO Laura Sen told the Huffington Post, adding that workers deserve “a nice holiday with their families.”

Amen to that. How about just being thankful for what we already have?

Now, I can put on my marketing hat and acknowledge that yes, stores need to remain competitive and yes, the period between Black Friday and Christmas Eve is by far the most important of the year for retailers. In fact, for some, it represents between 20-40% of annual sales, according to the National Retail Federation.

Furthermore, putting in long, grueling work hours during the holiday shopping season has always been a fact of life for retail employees because that’s just the nature of the beast. And they know that.

But isn’t it enough that most big retailers already open at 12 a.m. on Black Friday? Giving employees those few extra hours to enjoy their Thanksgiving feast with loved ones doesn’t seem like too much to concede.

Last year Brendan O’Kane, CEO of OtherLevels (a ThinkInk client), mused in a guest post on Retail Merchandiser – after reading that Macy’s would be open around the clock the weekend before Christmas – about the possibility of a holiday shopping season where stores just don’t close at all.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this scenario actually becomes real within a few years.

And on that wildly cheerful note, I and the whole ThinkInk staff would like to wish our readers and clients a beautiful and peaceful Thanksgiving holiday close to their families and far from the madding crowd at the mall.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Is Customer Loyalty Earned, Bought or Both?

"Why was God able to create heaven and earth in seven days and seven nights? Because he didn't have installed customers and legacy technology to worry about." – Brad Smith, CEO, Intuit.

That’s what Smith told Fast Company earlier in the year when he was pondering this question: How do you actually move an existing group of customers from what they fell in love with to the next thing that could be great?

What he’s specifically talking about is near-field communications (NFC), a technology that uses a low-power radio signal to transmit information between two devices – such as a point-of-sale system and a consumer’s smartphone – and enables consumers to take actions such as making payments simply by tapping their phones against a terminal. I’ve written about NFC quite a lot, as well.
Mobile marketing pundits have been trumpeting NFC as the next big thing for several years, but as recently as September 2013 only 18% of American smartphone users owned an NFC-enabled device. And that’s primarily because tapping a phone isn’t all that different from swiping a card or handing over cash. 

In other words, consumers have been so well conditioned to using cards (prepaid, debit or credit) that it’s difficult to get them to embrace a new technology that requires them to change their habits – and there’s a similar dynamic in loyalty.

Loyalty program engagement has dropped 4.3% since 2010, but program memberships have continued to climb – there are 2.65 billion of them in the US alone! Clearly, consumers are used to joining loyalty programs, but when they find them unengaging, they stop using them, remaining members in name only. 

Not exactly a recipe for lasting brand loyalty, is it? Brands need to earn their customers’ goodwill and repeat business. That means communicating with them through their preferred channels and taking the necessary steps to know their wants and needs and so give them rewards that add actual value to their lives.

ThinkInk works with some loyalty companies that really get this.

For instance, Toronto-based Points, runs a virtual loyalty wallet where members can track, trade and redeem a variety of rewards currencies in one convenient location. Not only do consumers have more freedom to use their rewards how they want to, participating brands get to share some of their customer data for a clear picture of customer wants and needs that allows the brands to make relevant offers.

Another company, Kula Causes, built an online platform where brands can allow their loyal program members to convert unused points or miles into cash donations to the charitable organizations that mean most to them (there’s over 2.5 million to choose from!)
In this case, Kula’s partner brands, which include JetBlue and Kellogg’s, earn their loyalty members’ “brand love” – and longer-lasting business relationships – by acting as conduits for those customers’ charitable instincts.

We’re also lucky enough to work with Kobie Marketing, an award-winning loyalty marketing firm that has built many of the world’s most successful customer loyalty and CRM programs for brands including Verizon, AMC Theatres, TGI Fridays, BJs Restaurant & Brewhouse and Royal Bank of Canada. They were recently selected as a leader in customer loyalty services for the second time by Forrester Research, Inc. The findings were published as part of a comprehensive assessment of customer loyalty program service providers in the Forrester Wave™: Loyalty Program Service Providers, Q4 2013. The recognition showcases Kobie Marketing as a loyalty industry innovator while underscoring how companies such as Kobie help brands build programs that track, understand, reward and grow customer value and engagement. Go Kobie!!

Another client, the Fuel Rewards Network is a free rewards program that significantly cuts consumers fuel costs. Members of the FRN program are rewarded at the pump and through their regular purchases at local grocery stores, restaurants and online retailers with cents-per-gallon off savings that can then be redeemed at Shell gas stations around the country. In just over a year, the Fuel Rewards Network has saved Americans more than $240 million in fuel costs with members saving an average of .28¢ on every gallon. All of us at ThinkInk have enrolled in the program – and it’s open to everyone. Visit to learn more.

Last but not least is PointsHound. PointsHound, which launched in beta in October 2012, is a new type of online hotel booking site that caters to the coveted and valuable frequent traveler demographic by offering an unprecedented rate of airline, hotel and retail rewards for every hotel stay booked on the site, at more than 150,000 properties around the globe. Travelers can choose to earn points and miles with a growing roster of 12 loyalty rewards programs, including American Airlines AAdvantage, My Best Buy, Flying Blue and Virgin America Elevate when making their hotel reservations at

You could argue that customer loyalty is bought with discounts – and that’s true if we’re talking about a program that incentivizes exactly the same behaviors without being imaginative and thinking about the whole customer experience. And in an age of diminishing loyalty engagement, the overall experience is more important than ever to earn and keep a customer’s ‘brand love.’

So, while it’s actually some of both, I’m of the opinion that the best and most powerful loyalty is earned by brands that go the extra mile to better know their customers and give them the kind of true value that can drive those relationships for a lifetime.

If you belong to a loyalty program – and chances are you do – how does the brand earn your “love,” if at all? What experiences have enhanced or diminished your brand loyalty? Share your stories with us below.

Friday, November 8, 2013

A David versus Goliath Battle Comes to Adland, But will Goliath Win?

Every high schooler can recite Newton’s third law of motion: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

But it’s a rule that applies far beyond physics classrooms. In the advertising world, an attempt at an equal and opposite reaction to this past summer’s mega-merger of Omnicom Group and Publicis Groupe, now Publicis-Omnicom and the world’s largest advertising agency, is already under way.

Like the Alliance of Small Island States or any “big guy versus little guy” organization, several small to mid-sized advertising agencies including Chi & Partners, its media operation M Six, customer relationship shop Rapier, PR agency Halpern and social shop The Social Practice have begun to push back by creating their own joint holding company called The & Partnership, according to AdAge.

Headed by Chi & Partners CEO Johnny Hornby with a North American arm run by Proximity CEO Andrew Bailey (formerly of Proximity Worldwide, an Omnicom company), the new conglomerate is a recognition that small and medium-sized advertising agencies risk losing clients and being squeezed out of the market as mega mergers like Publicis-Omnicom become more common. In reaction, small agencies are fighting fire with fire. 

But are mid-sized mergers really the right solution?

Media analyst and blogger Don Cole doesn’t think so and I agree to an extent. He fears that small to mid-sized agencies won’t have the staffing, creative talent and big data resources to be truly appealing to larger (and more profitable) clients. In the end, mid-sized mergers are like pooling the skills of several minor league baseball teams. More players don’t mean more capabilities. If anything, he cautions, cost cutting (read: layoffs) will be first on their agenda. In this scenario, the Goliath that Publicis-Omnicom has become (and the others that follow) wins out over the smaller Davids.

So if mini mergers aren’t the solution, what is? It’s not as black and white as Don Coles sees it. To return to my baseball analogy, not all minor league players stay minor league forever. Some do make it to the majors. And “making it to the majors” is what all advertising and PR agencies aspire to achieve. While one route to that success is, of course, growing large (and influential) enough to be bought by a conglomerate such as Publicis-Omnicom, another way is to continuously recruit new, young talent and also become expert in specific niche communication fields. That’s what we’re doing at ThinkInk.

It’s important to remember that smaller agencies aren’t devoid of assets. At smaller shops there is often less process, less bureaucracy and less confusion over who has the authority to do what. Small agencies are nimble and can better respond to client crises, when they inevitably occur.

As for The & Partnership, you can be bet adland will be watching its success or failure as closely as it’s watching Publicis-Omnicom. The David and Goliath ad agency battle is just heating up and it’s anyone’s guess which side will win.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Are Facebook’s Mobile Ads a Fad or will Successful Monetization Stick?

Whoever coined the phrase “it’s lonely at the top” forgot to mention that that loneliness is often short-lived.

That’s because, at best, aggressive competition means an eventual sharing of the summit (think iOS and Android). At worst, it means a complete dethroning. Remember when AOL was the most popular Web portal?

For now Facebook, still the world’s dominant social media network, can bask in all the mountaintop sunlight it wants.

Not only has active membership continued to grow – it stands 1.2 billion or one-seventh of the world’s population – but desktop and mobile ad revenue is starting to add up. Fully 60% of the publicly-traded company’s third-quarter revenue came from advertising and nearly half of that ad revenue came from mobile devices.

This is especially impressive considering how fast Facebook’s mobile advertising ramp up has been, starting as recently as early 2012. In other words, Facebook has successfully monetized advertising in less than half the time it has taken digital media to achieve even modest advertising revenue results.

But how much longer will Facebook’s mobile advertising miracle continue? The company has already been extremely transparent regarding its own expectations. For starters, Facebook will not continue increasing the percentage of ads in users’ news feeds. With this growth capped, there’s only so many clever ways to incentivize higher click-through rates.

Then there’s the nagging concern that teens are beginning to tune Facebook out, switching to sites like Twitter or embracing a host of direct messaging apps. Some of the pullback is due to Facebook’s own success. What teen really wants to be “friends” with their parents on social media or have them or other authority figures poking around on what was once the equivalent of their digital bedrooms – places considered off limits? According to financial firm Piper Jaffray, only 23% of 8,650 recently surveyed teens preferred Facebook.

While the siphoning of younger support isn’t a big deal for Facebook yet, it underscores just how fleeting social media platform popularity can be and how ad revenues, like a seasonal stream, can dry up as fast as it floods. A decade ago Myspace was the leading social media network. Today, despite a flurry of recent positive news, the site has a very long way to go in its climb back toward greatness – if it ever gets there. Its base of 36 million users is similar in size to the population of the Greater Tokyo Area. One city.

How long Facebook remains on top is anyone’s guess. While I applaud the company’s mobile advertising monetization efforts and hope they continue, could it be a little too late as the next social media fad goes on the attack, chasing that summit?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sonic Boom: Why Flying Just Got Really Ugly – And (Potentially) Loud

Sound the alarm! The in-flight cabin experience is about to get much louder – or so it would seem.  After months of debate and a government shutdown delay, the day many of us frequent travelers dreaded has arrived: the use of personal electronic devices (smartphones, laptops and tablets) is now allowed throughout the flight’s duration, including landing and takeoff.

While actual phone conversations and texting remain off limits, a new gadget acceptance precedent – one that could soon turn planes into flying commuter trains complete with loud and obnoxious cellphone chatterers – is taking shape.

Urgh. I can hear it now…

“Omigod, did you hear about Robbie’s party last week?! It was sick! Jacquie got plastered, made out with that guy from accounting and puked on her own dress. Total disaster!”

You don’t say. Do I really need to listen to this rubbish at 35,000 feet? No.

Fortunately, I won’t have to…yet. But, as I said, a change is already in the air and I don’t like it. Even with the provisos and caveats the FAA has included in the lifted ban – enhanced gadget use depends on the airline, the weather and the aircraft – the last vestiges of a place where books, magazines and some quiet contemplation don’t look antiquated are rapidly receding.

It’s ironic that a digital “last stand” is being fought onboard passenger planes that feature advanced avionics, Wi-Fi, flash food-prep technology and seatbacks capable of displaying live TV, movies and virtual shopping malls. Sometimes I feel like it’s a battle that should have been lost years ago. 

Only it hasn’t. The question is why?

I think it comes down to what air travel means to most passengers; whether powered by propeller or turbine, air travel has long evoked a sense of welcome disconnection. The fair-or-foul vagaries of weather strongly influence whether you travel at all. Once you’re in the air, pilots control your destiny. And if there’s a midair disaster, odds are you won’t survive. There’s a kind of peace in that morbid realization. Your life is in others’ hands. Cocooned by the whirr of powerful engines, millions of passengers take flight attendants’ advice to heart, literally sitting back and enjoying their flight – uninterrupted.

Even without nonstop texting and phone calls, some of that welcome quietude is about to be disrupted. Now your fellow passengers will board in zombie mode: plugged in to their private little worlds. Except, unlike with books and whispered conversations, smartphone and tablet games will inspire grunts, random screams, shouts of joy and spirited sibling rivalry. Changes like this will also inspire an uptick in Wi-Fi as passengers move – linked, synced and wired – from terminal to plane without worrying about having to power down.

Of course, it’s possible the coming volume invasion will be mitigated by more aggressive airline loyalty programs that section off “quiet” cabin areas and honor requests for hours of low-volume gadget tinkering.

One way or another, these changes are coming and it’s time we all face the music – shouts, screams, and any other cacophony that makes flying a louder, less enjoyable experience.

I must admit I’m dreading it.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Creativity: To Be or Not to Be?

Many of us in the marketing and PR worlds have fallen prey to second guessing our individual creative capacity.  Are we all inherently creative in some shape or form? Or are our creative genes shut down at an early age when a 5th grade art teacher sneers at a drawing or ‘artistic project’ we thought (and Mum and Dad told us!!) was a great piece of creative work?

Think about how you define yourself as the creative type before dismissing that ideal, picking something else to define you – like an analytical type, an Alpha type or even a diplomatic type and then moving on to fulfill that prophecy.

Our continual societal reinforcement that creativity is a special ‘gift’ that only some people are born with while others aren’t is what David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity says perpetuates these various myths.

“The truth is, we’re all born with the ability to think creatively,” says Burkus.
As we grow older, depending on our upbringing and experiences, we either go on to develop this ability or let it take a backseat.

My view on the “creativity myth” is this: Creativity is like a muscle that needs to be appropriately nourished, stimulated and exercised. In other words, creative people push past psychological barriers to act on their seemingly absurd ideas when noncreative people don’t.

Burkus shares the example of how Kodak invented the digital camera but rejected it because the executives didn’t think people would be willing to give up the quality produced by film pictures. Sony then went on to develop a different prototype and became the pioneers of digital photography… and the rest is history.

In disciplines like marketing, advertising and public relations, it’s very common to be pigeonholed into one of two broad categories, creative or noncreative. While a demarcation between the two categories is slowly becoming less rigid, it still exists.

Here’s another example that hits closer to home. Bill Bernbach, regarded as the father of the Creative Revolution (and Modern Advertising), was instrumental in transforming the advertising world with his campaigns for Volkswagen and Avis Car Rentals. He’s also credited with being the first to combine copywriters and art directors into two-person teams—they commonly had been in separate departments—a model that exists in advertising agencies today. In fact, that approach is now being applied across different types of business models, i.e., bringing design, marketing and engineering teams together (see this example in action at Electrolux).

What does all this mean for the enterprise of today? Can the knowledge that anyone is ‘creative’ change the way creativity is perceived and therefore cultivated? And how can this perpetuate the way ideas are accepted, critiqued and developed within these companies?

I’m constantly challenging my team to find solutions to any problems and challenges that we’re facing – and to think creatively about problem-solving.

What are some of the ways in which you apply creativity, beyond the obvious, to your business? Or are you still struggling with the “creativity myth” and putting people – and even your own creative capabilities – into a stifling box?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ditch the Pitch says AdAge? In a Heartbeat says ThinkInk!

At ThinkInk, we often think that RFPs (requests for proposals) actually stand for Really Flawed Presentations.

That’s also the takeaway from a recent AdAge article which looks at how, as the economy has rebounded and revenue is again flowing (modestly, at least), agencies are being more selective with the RFPs they review and the pitches they accept – PR agencies included.

Desperate times may have called for desperate measures with agencies taking on any business just to survive. But the lessons learned are likely to be applied the next time the economy goes bust. And it will. 

For my non-PR readers, a word on RFPs. RFPs are supposed to be well thought out, clearly written documents that explain to an agency what the client does and how they envision the agency-client relationship evolving. Central to this professional worldview:

How can a communications company advance the client’s mission/messaging?
To what extent can they (the agency) deliver a concrete return on investment, realized in a timely and efficient manner?
Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Well, it’s not.

Unlike architectural RFPs, chock full of data, building timelines, artist renderings and estimated costs, would be client-submitted RFPs are often vague, filled with unreasonable deadlines, unclear messaging and unrealistic (think: meager) budgets.

Granted, it’s a bit of a Catch-22. Prospective clients aren’t communications professionals. They seek our input in helping craft their messaging.

So rather than rejecting such flawed documents outright, perhaps we should instead put our proverbial foot down. Even before the RFP process gets underway PR agencies, proud of their own self worth – and recognition that they, too, are businesses which have to protect their bottom lines – must establish pre-RFP guidelines. The age of indiscriminate RFP acceptance is over. Potential clients should be given a dose of pre-relationship “tough love,” couched in the language that the more fine-tuned an RFP is prior to its submission to an agency, the greater the likelihood that agency will accept its terms.

In other words, potential clients need to do a little more homework if we are to take their communications strategy to the next level. Pushback and dialogue should be nothing to fear.

Sometimes an assertive ‘NO’ to a prospective client and its demands is as important as a hearty ‘YES.’   They may even respect you for it.

Maybe that’s what RFP should stand for… Respect For Professional

Friday, October 18, 2013

Dethroning King Content: Why Context Should Be Just as Important

“Content is King.”

It’s a phrase PR professionals, marketing gurus, journalists and editors hear every day.

Coined by Bill Gates in 1996 as part of his Internet worldview, it’s worth noting that even back in the 28.8k days of dial-up modems, “content is king” was not all the Microsoft Chairman stressed. Equally important was the context of the material published.

“To be successful online, a magazine, [for instance] can’t just take what it has in print and move it to the electronic realm,” Gates wrote. “There isn’t enough depth or interactivity in print content to overcome the drawbacks of the online medium.” 

Nearly two decades after Gates wrote those words and their meaning still resonates. Not only is context important between print and online, all the digital mediums such as email, social, mobile and so on require different methods of user engagement.

In other words, one size does not fit all.

One of the most obvious rules of thumb: lengthy copy should be presented on lengthy screens, tablet-sized or greater. Smartphones, even those with 6-inch screens are too small for maximum user enjoyment. Even the definition of “long copy” is relative to the medium. Chances are that anything over 500 words in mobile format pushes the limit.

But it’s more than that.

Ideally, PR teams should be large enough to include channel-specific content writers. Or at the very least, content writers should have the freedom to discuss with in-house or outsourced social media experts how their content could best be adapted to fit channel needs. Repackaging a 3,000-word whitepaper into 120, 140-character tweets might “get the job done” in the strictest sense, but it may miss the mark in terms of user engagement.

Successful tweets are not article or presentation bullet points. They’re conversation starters; unique insights or observations that spark genuine debate and feedback.

Maybe “dethroning King Content” is a little harsh. After all, establishing proper context would be impossible without the raw materials of content already laid out. But how those knowledge building blocks are assembled and presented to the right audience on the right channel is critical if PR executives (and any communications professionals) are to use the web and its many channels to their fullest extent.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

“Shane” on You: A Perfect Example of Why the Media Continues its “Flack Attack”

There was I, excited to read another PR professional’s musings on why journalists give us a hard time when it comes to pitches, follow-up emails, do not call times and other various gripes. I was eager for the advice.

Instead I found myself agreeing with the so-called “other side” of  the communications industry. Written by Andy Shane, a PR professional whose resume and personal webpage feels a little light, his recent article violated several critical rules if our (PR) industry and our clients are to be taken seriously.

So move aside Andy Shane, here are mine:

Rule #1

Get to the point – fast. At nearly 800 words, Shane’s article does a lot of rambling, repeats a few points concerning the need for “compelling narrative” and offers little concrete advice or action steps. 

Rule #2

Limit clich├ęs, use correct grammar and don’t make ‘Writing 101’ errors. This last point really bugs me and it’s a rule we all learned in…well…grammar school.

Shane writes: “We are using the media – and the inherit third party credibility – as a way of telling our story to our real audience.”

Correction, I think you meant “inherent,” as in “innate” or “inseparable element,” according to

He goes on to write: “As pitches are being flushed out, consider.”

Strike two. Pitches are fleshed out, not flushed out – unless they’re really terrible.

I’d like to tell you mistakes like these are rare. But even as a PR professional, there’s no way to spin this. Mistakes like this do crop up all the time. Whatever value Shane’s article originally possessed is instantly cancelled out.

Great pitches are more than compelling narrative. They’re also about crisp, clean writing, free of embarrassingly sophomoric mistakes. Journalists like to say, “Let the copy sing.” Very often our industry’s jargon habit interferes with what could be a lovely client voice.

So “shane” on you, Andy. I know we can do a lot better in putting the “flack attack” to rest.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Dangers of Only Looking Ahead

As an outdoors runner, I learned very quickly that it’s dangerous to only look ahead.  In the hour or so of my daily pavement bashing, I try to solve the world’s problems, plan out my day and tackle a few challenges looming at the office – all in my head.  In this state it’s easy to lose myself and only see what’s right in front of me. Doing that prevents me from seeing what’s coming up behind – or from the left or right. 
Simply put, if I don’t look around while I’m running, I could be dead.

Sadly, this form of myopia is something I’m seeing more and more. Today’s drivers, in their rush to get to work -or wherever else they’re going - no longer look around at a STOP sign. They might look one way or another. But rarely do they scan the entire road. Instead, motorists are distracted, on the phone and not paying attention. If it wasn’t for me paying attention to their driving, it’s very likely I’d be dead.

But you know, it’s not just on the roads that this is happening. I’m seeing the same tunnel vision in our PR profession where, if something isn’t obvious or right in front of someone’s nose, they don’t bother to look around for either a solution or come up with an answer by themselves. Fueled by a society where we’re plugged into dozens of alerts, multiple screens and a barrage of information being pushed and spoon fed to us every second, we’ve stopped seeing the big picture. We’re cherry picking our news, biting on teeny snippets of information that inform all our knowledge and only looking at what’s directly in front of us.

For more on Multitasking, social media, and distraction, check out  Journalist's Resource.

The danger of doing this is that we’re missing out on everything else. In the PR profession, not having a complete picture of what’s happening ‘all around’ a client’s business or their industry puts us at a significant disadvantage. We’re not able to make intelligent decisions because we simply don’t know what else is going on that could impact their business or our campaign.

So the next time you come to a STOP sign, don’t just look ahead. Take a moment to look all around.  Yes, it could add another 5 seconds to your commute, but you might see something you didn’t know was there. You could learn something new or revisit something you had forgotten, like what to do at traffic signs.

For more on traffic signs, especially for those friendly Florida drivers, refresh your memory here.

Or you could be encouraged by someone, like I was, to write about your experience.  We live in a distracted world that will only become more distracting. As PR professionals, our ability to have both a razor-sharp focus and see everything around us – not just what’s in front – will be the differentiator between great communicators and mediocre ones who stop short of true inspiration.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Reimagining the mobile-enabled PR agency of the future

“Publically traded diversified energy company.”
Try texting that while juggling other tasks. It is how New Jersey’s largest utility company, Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), describes itself.
Basically it means PSEG subsidiaries – there are four with names too long to write: control power generation, distribution, line maintenance and infrastructure investment. In non-jargon speech, it means they are almost a monopoly, overseeing nearly all aspects of the energy universe.
But PSEG’s success got me thinking. How can public relations agencies corner their own communication market, becoming “diversified communication companies” along the way?
Energy to change
PR agencies can do that by broadening their offerings and by becoming true information access, distribution and generation conglomerates. What will be their “power lines” – their message distribution medium?
Two recent articles speak to this need but tackle it from different perspectives.
Earlier this spring, The New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott reported on the rebranding of PR powerhouse Fleishman-Hillard turned “FleishmanHillard” and highlighted how the brand is becoming “an integrated marketing communications agency.”
What does this mean? Hint: it sounds a lot like “diversified energy company,” just dressed up differently. It means expanding the agency’s focus largely from traditional earned media to include paid media (advertising), owned media (think branded content and blogs) and increased capabilities to use social media as a critical storytelling medium.
Each of these examples rely – or should rely – heavily on a communication company’s mobile presence and that of their clients. 
Read the rest of the article on Mobile Marketer.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Raising the Bar on the Perception of Mobile Reception

My, my, how high maintenance we’ve all become.

Not long ago, many of our tech-savvy selves (myself included), were awestruck by the power of our devices. First, we couldn’t imagine a world without word processing programs. Then “Google it,” became a grammatically correct sentence. Now our smartphones and tablets allow us to shop, stream live radio, teleconference with friends and colleagues and manage multiple virtual currencies – all while we’re busy working and juggling other tasks.

But if a recent survey is any indication, our collective sense of technological awe is giving way to entitlement. Just like we don’t applaud every time an electric light bulb brightens with the flick of a switch, consumers are beginning to expect that their smartphone’s mobile service be just as reliable.

According to a Vasona Networks survey, 64% of respondents felt that “good performance all the time” was a reasonable mobile phone network expectation. A slim 36% were more forgiving and agreed that performance hiccups and dead zones were par for the technological course.

I wasn’t a survey respondent, but you can count me in the minority.

My reaction to the data is twofold. Firstly, it’s possible our overly linked, synched and wired world has done more to speed up our culture than caffeine. A bit of humility never hurt. And statistics like this underscore how little non-experts appreciate the complexity of our wireless world – not to mention some scientific basics.

Like any form of radio transmission, cell phone towers work by line of sight. So the hillier or more mountainous the terrain, the more difficult reception becomes. Likewise, walls, physical structures, and other electronic noise (TVs, desktop computers, microwaves, etc.), also wreak havoc on reception quality and mobile download speeds.

These are challenges that will never be fully resolved and it’s perfectly OK. Do we blame terrestrial radio when we drive our cars (and their antennas) out of reception range? No. The same rules apply.

What isn’t OK, though, are the many poorly designed mobile web pages and apps whose clumsiness prevents them from maximizing 3G and 4G speeds. Sometimes it comes down to a matter of “reception perception.” Mobile web pages might be downloading swiftly, but if the user experience is lacking, simple processes, (like trying to purchase something on a smartphone or tablet) become cumbersome.

To the aggravated 64%, if you must be of the persnickety persuasion, make certain your frustration is directed to the appropriate source. Focus less on cell phone service providers and more on how websites are designed, how apps are developed and the utility of these. 

As PR professionals it’s our job to help our clients maximize how they promote their mobile presence. Actual download speeds won’t be affected. But the time it takes for consumers to realize on-the-go enjoyment, will undoubtedly accelerate.  Perhaps the next time you visit a mobile web site or interact with an app that’s undergone radical improvement you will applaud and not feel so entitled.   
I’m just saying…. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Beaming Mobile Messages To Your Brain

A couple of months ago some commuter trains in Germany made global headlines: a rail operator’s passengers were treated to a “marketing wonder” of windows beaming advertising messages directly into the brains of said passengers who’d happened to place their weary heads on the glass.

Called bone conduction and already used in military applications and hearing aids, early reviews of this new type of use have been mixed. Not surprisingly, the ad agency BBDO who produced the ad campaign for Sky Deutschland called it a success. Of course they would. But many responses from a Mashable article read more like: “Is this for real? Just stay out of my head. This kind of invention must be BANNED.”

I agree to a point. It is disturbing how technology this pervasive can be abused. Don’t we have enough bombardment of ads already across multiple screens and devices?

But less than two months later, there’s growing (indirect) evidence of a perceptual shift. A new Harris Interactive poll found that consumer interest in mobile advertising offers has increased sharply since 2009. Nearly half, (45%) of mobile phone owners said they were at least somewhat interested in receiving mobile alerts about new products, sales and/or promotions from preferred brands, compared with 26% of respondents who felt similarly in 2009. And of those more recent supporters, 78% said they found location-based advertising particularly useful.

Does this mean brain beaming advertising glass has silenced its detractors? Um, no. But in light of this new data, it’s not that hard to envision a future where location-aware smartphones (or wearable gadgets) will work together with personalized advertising delivered on glass in trains, buses, planes and on walls in airports, incentivizing even more purchases and “brand/brain engagement.” That includes physical purchases as well as in-app buys. In other words, “mobile” advertising doesn’t always require a mobile phone. And as smartphone adoption rates rise, consumers will grow increasingly comfortable with seeing advertisements everywhere they look.

Is there a safeguard against the world becoming one giant digital billboard?  Permission-based advertising – a point the Harris study was quick to address. Consumers must have the ability to opt out of these types of marketer outreach.

Replacing my marketing hat with that of a PR professional’s for a moment, talking glass and mobile advertising appreciation also underscores another need.

PR agencies must make mobile the connective communications tissue of their client engagement and media messaging. Considering mobile devices’ reduced screen sizes, that means thinking smaller; telling client stories in bite-sized nuggets. It also means stepping up the ways in which we promote the importance of mobile messaging and mobile advertisements to clients from the start of our relationships.

“Smart” glass may have yet to hit its stride. But Harris Interactive data confirms that mobile really is everywhere and the pushback from round-the-clock advertising is eroding faster than many communication professionals originally thought. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Will Publiomnicomis Take Over AdLand and the Media Universe?

It’s been a couple of weeks since we last posted on the ThinkInk blog, not because we’ve had nothing to say but because we’ve been crazy busy.  Summer is usually a time when a lot of businesses wind down, but it’s been the opposite around here.

New people, new clients and lots of new ideas...stay tuned for more on that but, in the meantime, we have a lot to say about last weekend’s announcement of the Omnicom-Publicis merger.

You know corporate news is serious when two things happen: the story breaks sometime between 5pm on Friday and 7am on Monday (slowing down media response and giving in-house spin doctors time to go into information-management mode) OR if said news is lampooned by comedians.

In the case of advertising agencies Omnicom Group, based in Manhattan, and Publicis Groupe SA, based in Paris, both have occurred. Last Sunday, in a lovely photo-op embrace, the agencies’ head chiefs announced the intended merger, valued at $35 billion. Meanwhile, a July 29 headline in The Onion read: “Merger of Advertising Giants Brings Together Largest Collection Of People With No Discernible Skills.

Gibe aside, a merger of this magnitude is no laughing matter. If approved, it will have a profound impact on the advertising industry – and far beyond. Whether the fallout is “good” or “bad,” however, is up for debate.

Camp A: Spooked

On one side is the “spooked” camp, with words like “monopoly,” ”behemoth,” and “stifled competition” on the tips of its members’ tongues. Considering that the new company (will it be called Publiomnicomis?!) will have spent a combined $3.31 billion in media placements during 2012 accounting for nearly half of the world’s top 10 media agencies’ efforts, it’s more than a fair concern and one that I appreciate.

Camp B: Rosy-Eyed

Then there’s the other camp, those who see opportunity – an opportunity for smaller firms to capture new business as some disgruntled clients flee, industry pricing/digital ad value and KPI standardization, as well as increased resources to acquire, manipulate and act on big data. The latter point will help adland better compete against Silicon Valley natives like Google, Facebook, Salesforce and Adobe, among many others.

Camp C: Vanessa

My camp falls somewhere in the middle. If the proposed mega-company survives the scrutiny of both US and French regulators, the bigger question becomes “what type of precedent does Publicis Omnicom’s soon-to-be-existence establish?” Just as the airline, automobile, entertainment and pharmaceutical industries have endured mergers and acquisitions for decades, what will the advertising landscape look like in five or ten years? Will there be room for corporate and creative independence or will the specialized firms of today, like ThinkInk, be relics of a bygone era?

I really don’t know. Some 46 countries must ultimately give their blessing and the final merger may not be complete until early 2014. So there is lots of time for positing and pontification.

But don’t let your head and screen be your own echo chambers. Share your views with the ThinkInk community: do you think the advertising world will embrace this new corporate marriage or will it leave executives across the media landscape po’d and just plain scared?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Public Relations to the Corporate Executive Rescue: Proving Our Worth in Innovative Ways

A recent Booz & Company study finds that a company’s internal message is being lost and that business leaders are finding themselves worried over a variety of communication-related issues. Chief among them:

·         64% said they had too many conflicting priorities
·         54% do not believe their company strategy will lead to success
·         53% did not believe their corporate strategy was understood by employees
·         33% felt company strategy and company capabilities were aligned

While these internal struggles often make our jobs as PR professionals more difficult – how can we draft an effective press release if the company doesn’t know what it wants to say or how to say it – I believe it’s also a valuable opportunity for our industry.

Always eager to demonstrate our communications worth, as PR agencies we must market ourselves as objective strategy sounding boards as well as networked media professionals. To some extent we do this all the time – hand-holding and coddling our most challenging clients.

But rarely do we market these evaluative skills up front. Too often we fall into the trap of “yes-ing” clients to death, spinning our wheels in failed response to internal client confusion. Considering all the talk of late of how PR agencies must adapt to new realities (faced in some cases, with the severing of 80-year-old client-agency partnerships), becoming diversified communications agencies versed in multiple channels and multiple ways of telling a compelling story might be only the beginning. Add to that our very adept skills at executive coaching and direction-finding and we may yet turn an internal corporate disadvantage into a new PR agency strength.

So has your PR agency already taken on new responsibilities as a quasi-executive coach – a prospering industry in its own right? What, specifically, are you doing to achieve that aim? And how are you balancing these expanded responsibilities with traditional PR? Share your trials and tribulations with the ThinkInk PR community in the section below.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Dunkin' Donuts Brings Home the Bacon, Ditches Bun, Turns Heads and Stomachs

Sometimes the proof is in the pudding. Other times it’s in the doughnuts – and the fried eggs and bacon that will soon come in all its artery-clogging goodness on a sliced sugary rounded pastry.

Mmmmmmm, hungry yet?

That’s what the fast-food chain Dunkin' Donuts is saying as it unveils its Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich. The 360-calorie bun-less monstrosity follows in the footsteps of other successful sandwiches like KFC’s “Double Down,” which replaces bread with two giant pieces of fried chicken and Taco Bell’s recent launch of Doritos Locos Tacos, which as the name implies, replaces a standard Taco Bell hard shell with a giant Dorito – which it wants us to believe is crazy. Which it is.

Of course, there’s a lot to chew on here. And whether Dunkin’s move should turn heads (think: positive) or churn stomachs (read: negative) is up for debate.

On one hand, Dunkin' is being daring by being blatant and transparent. No matter how many egg white options are added to the menu and no matter how many calorie counts are posted, Dunkin' Donuts is not a health food brand. Nor is any fast-food chain for that matter.  And no one is forcing consumers to make unhealthy purchases. They’re just providing increased culinary options goes one argument. But in light of America’s and the world’s ongoing obesity epidemic – according to the British medical journal The Lancet, obesity is a bigger health crisis than starvation – a campaign this brazen feels more like going down with a sinking ship.

In other words, since we’re all going to eat ourselves to death anyway, why not enjoy the party? As I used to say as a young child before each meal, two four six eight, tuck in, don’t wait!

In order to be successful and not perceived as gluttons for….gluttony, Dunkin' will have to carefully calibrate its PR message, poking fun at its own campaign, but also knowing when to be serious, stressing healthier options.

So tell me know what you think. Is Dunkin’s move a PR slam dunk? Or has the brand’s bottom line sacrificed all of our waistlines? 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Measuring a Measured PR Response: Disarming the “Pistol Pastry” Incident

OK, we all know too many sweets can cause cavities and tummy aches, but the following “sweet tale” is ridiculous. In March of this year, 7-year-old Josh Welch, a second-grader at Park Elementary School in Brooklyn Park, Md., was suspended for two days after he nibbled his breakfast pastry (similar to a Pop-Tart) into what at least one teacher and the assistant principal thought looked like a gun. A letter from the school went home to parents describing the incident, informing them that counselors would be on-hand if their children needed further assistance.

Fast-forward to May 2013 and Josh is back in the news. This time he’s been awarded lifetime membership into the National Rifle Association, thanks to the efforts of Anne Arundel county Republicans.

I’ve made this appeal often, but it bears repeating. Public relations and proper messaging is all about calibrating one’s response. While the US gun debate is no laughing matter – New York City just endured a weekend where 25 people were shot and six killed – suspension of an elementary school student isn’t trivial either. Overreaction to the “pistol pastry” left a critical opening for pro-gun Republicans to respond with equal farce.

Now, a very serious matter has been turned into a joke.

But what’s your take on all of this? Was the Park Elementary School response valid? Can something as dangerous as gun violence still be lampooned? And what do you think young Josh – now 8 – learned from the incident and incident response?  I’d love to hear your views on this very divisive topic!  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

R.I.P. D.I.Y. P.R…Why Press Release Production is Harder Than You Think

I’ve been seeing a growing number of articles questioning whether companies, particularly startups, should be saving money by acting as their own PR firms. It’s interesting to note, too, that many of these articles have been written by PR consultants and small-business coaches-cum-authors. Just saying…

Dallas Mavericks owner, investment tycoon and Shark Tank star Mark Cuban got a rise out of the public relations industry in early 2012 when he was quoted as saying that startups shouldn’t hire PR firms to manage their messaging. And there is some logic behind that.

After all, the arguments against a startup or small company hiring a PR firm come down to the expense of a retainer fee and possible extra billings. With limited funds and irregular cash flow, this view is understandable. There’s also the nagging question of whether the communication services provided correlate into direct ROI.

Naturally, I don’t subscribe to this view. Of course, not every company needs PR assistance. But in an increasingly crowded startup and small business space – employing nearly half of the US private sector and responsible for 60% of all new jobs in the last two decades – getting noticed is a matter of corporate life and death.  

Sometimes professionals are what are needed to get the job done. Actually, it’s a lot like plumbing. Fixing a toilet with duct tape and paper clips will only get you so far. And press releases –central to what our industry produces – are liable to end up in the loo if they’re poorly written.

But love them or hate them, the press release, which appropriately starts with the same letters of our profession, is our calling card. And sadly, I’ve read thousands of press releases that fail to inspire. In fact, we have two former reporters on staff at ThinkInk who have attested to the daily barrage of bad press releases they were subjected to during their journalistic careers. One (who shall remain nameless) even admitted to turning them into paper airplanes and flying them around the newsroom.

Underscoring the point: about a week ago I received a press release – from a man I’ve never heard of at a company I’ve never heard of – announcing that his company won an award which I’ve also never heard of. Just out of PR curiosity, I checked the name of the company president, who is quoted in the release, against the name of the company’s media contact. It turns out it’s the same guy.

To be fair, it’s likely that the company president is so busy actually running the company to put much thought into how he’s telling its story. And that’s exactly the point. This is a communications job for communications professionals. Leave it to us.

After all, there is such a thing as a professional press release. And it starts with an effective headline and email subject line. Both should rely on the tenets of solid journalism: concise noun-verb sentences attracting eyeballs. The body of the release must be story driven; something that evokes a human emotional response. It doesn’t have to be profound. But something like a humdrum building expansion and lease renewal all of a sudden gains added relevance when that client-serving news is anchored to, say, an entire urban core’s renaissance. Placed in that context, a press release transforms from self-servicing copy into another form of narrative writing.

Can a small business hire a team to write these releases in-house?


But writing an effective press release is only part of the story. Knowing who to pitch it to makes all the difference. There’s also channel relevance to consider and social media. This mix of writing skills, tech-savvy know-how and networking acumen is critical to what we do, and frankly, why we get paid.

It’s true; public relations services can be costly. And there is often a slow ramp-up period for the selected agency to learn the client’s voice. Unlike newly repaired toilets, ROI benefits aren’t always immediate. But history is filled with examples of PR campaigns that helped turn obscure companies into household names or conversely, re-brand fallen stars.

PR isn’t an instant gratification business. But it is professional in how it operates. To the naysayers who counsel DIY small business and startup PR, I’d urge reconsideration. Your brand only gets one chance to make a first impression. And in the mobile and digital age sometimes your fate is sealed even before that public unveiling.

So if at all possible, leave the PR job to the experts. And if your loo backs up – call a plumber.    

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

How Nonprofits Can Lose Donors through Lousy Customer Communications

I love little seals. And I am concerned about endangered sea lions, orcas and humpback whales. My view is that a healthy marine ecosystem equals a healthy planet - and we all want to live on a healthy planet. But when it comes to charitable giving, marine life has not been on the top of my donation list.

I actually have a soft spot for the wildlife of Africa – lions, tigers, giraffes, leopards, giant wildebeest, elephants and the caracal cats with the hairy tufts on the tips of their ears. Perhaps it was growing up in Australia and exposure to the harsh outback that influenced my feelings towards these rugged species? And perhaps that’s why, about six months ago, I signed up to support Greenpeace’s efforts on behalf of these species when one of its volunteer members approached me on the street.

Then, for six months, Greenpeace automatically withdrew a monthly donation from my bank account. In that time, I never did hear from the organization once… until last week.

Out of nowhere, I received a random email from a Greenpeace organizer asking me to either physically or mentally (through a petition signature) accompany her to Alaska as she testifies in a hearing related to protecting the Bering Sea and the creatures that call it home.

Throughout the email, which bore the tired old subject line “I can’t go it alone,” she addressed me as “Venassa.”

As a result of that one misguided and misspelled email, “Venassa” is no longer a Greenpeace donor.

Perhaps, as a marketing professional, I am being overtly critical but this was such a customer communications no-no that it turned me off the organization and the missions it supports right there and then.

Rule number one in marketing is get your customer’s name right. Rule number two is be relevant.

Greenpeace failed on both counts.

When we give money or time and effort to a cause we care about, we get something in return. We are buying the “warm glow” that comes from “impure altruism,” a term coined in 1990 by a University of California economist called James Andreoni.

We don’t just do it to support a cause. We also do it because it feels good. And when it doesn’t feel good, we stop.

As a marketer, you have a responsibility to create, nurture and retain a relationship with your customer. Nonprofits have the same responsibility to their customers and that starts by getting a donor’s name right – especially when he or she is contributing to their cause.

Whether you are a for-profit business or a nonprofit, how you speak to your customers or donors matters. A lot. Customers want to feel like you truly value their business or their charitable contributions. When you know their names and what they like and don’t like, it shows you’ve taken the time to get to know them, which leads to a stronger – and longer – relationship with your brand.

Readers, this isn’t a takedown of nonprofits or of Greenpeace. It’s an example of what happens when marketers don’t do their homework: they send their valuable customers right out the door for good.

Now, does this mean I’m going to stop supporting the causes I care about? Absolutely not! It just means that I’m going to seek out other organizations that take the time and care to communicate with me.

What are some of the worst examples of poor customer communications you’ve seen? I encourage you to share them with our community in the section below.