The Three Ailments of Social Media

As social media becomes more and more prevalent in corporate America, I'm seeing three syndromes emerge of what I call "social media saturation." These are the result of repeated exposure and reduced resistance to many virulent strains of social media memes.

One of our many jobs at Fresh Ground is to inoculate you against these terrible afflictions. What are they, exactly?

Fishbowl Syndrome

Flickr image by xploitmeMy dad is a very patient man, and he tried for a very long time to get his ADHD son interested in fishing. I didn't inherit his love for fishing, but I do remember some of the lessons he taught me. One of them was this: "be patient, but if the fish aren't biting, or you're sick of eating the same fish day in and day out, change up." Change your bait, change your location, change your tactic -- change your lake if you have to. If you're like me and dived right in to the social media fishbowl, you'll find after a while that the water gets stale. The tools may change, but the key messages haven't changed since the publication of the Cluetrain Manifesto.

Hear a strange echo in your head? No, it's not from that bender last night -- though I'm sure it didn't help -- it's the strange acoustics you find in the social media fishbowl: the same voices echoing over and over again about this or that. Are you reading the same thing day-in and day-out? While I still do learn from the social media community out there, I'll never innovate, or create anything new, if I limit my content consumption to the 40 or 50 blogs in my RSS reader, or my 50 closest friends on Twitter.

I spoke with a good friend just yesterday evening about what conferences and events we're going to, and though I'm going to make an exception with PodCamp, I'm really starting to move out of the fishbowl. If you find yourself chatting and tweeting at an event more than actually listening and learning, your money or time was not well spent.

Shiny Object Syndrome

Let's face it: we're all a little ADHD in the social media world. We want to stay on the cutting edge, but we end up living a life of distractions. I'm Twitter's biggest fan, and just as much of a Facebook addict as the next guy, and have been found guilty of oversharing on multiple occasions -- but I try my best not to lose sight that if it's not helping me become a become a smarter person or a better businessman, I need to moderate my involvement. It's really tempting to jump on the latest and greatest social media tool simply because it's there. While I recommend reserving your personal and company names on as many services, tools and social networks are you can find, I do not recommend jumping on every social media platform that flies by your window.

My concern is not so much that there is little innovation going on -- quite the opposite in fact, and more will be coming (there's a whole week of events coming in October talking about the future of marketing). My concern is that effective use of new technology requires both dissemination and adoption, and adoption requires more than just an affinity for new technology -- it requires changing how or where you do your work. This is more of a corporate culture / change management / management consulting issue than it is a marketing or technology issue, and that's where so many of us fall short in the talent pool -- the social media world is full of marketing and technology aficionados, but not nearly as many management consultant types. How do you convince companies to change how they work in order to really get the most out of their technology investment?

We're still cutting our teeth on this at Fresh Ground, but we've got some initial successes under our belt -- it helps to be working with really smart companies who know what they don't know.

Talking Head Syndrome

One of the risks of diving head first into technology -- especially social technology -- is "talking head syndrome." My favorite example of this is a company near and dear to my heart: Home Depot. Being the owner of a condo in a very old house means I spend a fair amount of time there. A couple years ago, I found myself at my local Home Depot a day before a major snowstorm looking for shovels, car scrapers and rock salt, figuring they would all be prominently (yet strategically) placed in the store. I could not find any of the three, and tweeted about their need for better merchandising. I was very pleasantly surprised to see a reply back from @HomeDepot. It was a very nice customer touch and my opinion of Home Depot shot up quickly. But my expectations shot up as well.

When the next major storm came a month later, I was disappointed (but not terribly surprised) to find that nothing had changed -- there was no rock salt, no shovels, no car scrapers to be found. I walked away more disappointed than I was the first time around, because Home Depot's great Twitter team is growing expectations that its corporate culture and technology infrastructure simply cannot meet.

This is what "talking head syndrome" is all about -- words, not backed by action. Now they've made some great improvements in customer support since that time, but I suspect that, as an example, their centralized inventory management and supply chain software hasn't been improved to allow local store managers to respond to all the feedback they get from Twitter users about local stores. Hopefully their Twitter team is better able to get the message to their centralized purchasing team now, though. What Home Depot needs to do is change its work culture to embrace social -- no easy feat I know, but it's the only way they're going to truly live up to the expectations that @HomeDepot is setting. Nice words help, but if they're not backed by action, they can end up hurting more than helping.

I'm sure there are other symptoms of social media saturation. What have I missed?


Updating Mad Men: Taking a Fresh Look at Old Campaigns

Starting today I'd like to try a new regular feature here on Fresh Ground: updating Mad Men campaigns for the social media age. A lot has been made about the fact that the period drama is so fun to look at because its advertising methods are so quaint. In 1964 TV was a relatively new thing for reaching mass audiences, print ads ruled the roost and sarcasm had just started to take hold in the ad world (many point to the "Lemon" campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle).

So what would a campaign look like today? Let's look at the Sugarberry Ham campaign. In the episode, Sugarberry is a ham company that is testing its canned hams in a few supermarkets around New York. Unfortunately one is in a Jewish neighborhood. So the company obviously doesn't have a great grasp of its market.

Let me set a few ground rules here:

  1. We are going to work within the world of Mad Men, that is, we'll deal with the facts they give;
  2. We're not going to run out and do a bunch of market research;
  3. Much of this will be brainstorming, as we have no idea as to their budget; and
  4. We'll fill in details as we need them.

Peggy Olsen, the Hero of Ham

Ok, so characters Peggy and Peter, faced with the possibility of losing the account come up with a publicity stunt involving 2 women being paid to fight over a store's last ham. Long story short, it doesn't go according to plan, still they get a few news stories, sell a bunch of hams, Peggy gets a new slogan "Our Hams are Worth Fighting For," and the client buys more media.

So, what would we at Fresh Ground do to help the story today?

First, we'd make sure that the corporate website had way to create and submit content. Specifically content regarding ham recipes. Being someone who lives in a Kosher house, I'll defer to people with more experience cooking canned hams, but I have to assume that people have plenty of recipes.

I actually have a personal connection to DAK Hams, though have never eaten one. Ask me why another time.

Then, we'd help them create a Facebook page that features a Recipe of the Week. We'd make sure that the weekly recipe went live on the site and feed directly through to the Facebook page, thereby showing up in the newsfeed of people who "liked" the Sugarberry Ham page. Also, we'd look at purchasing geo-targeted ads so the people living in the desired areas see the Sugarberry name. Ideally we'd coordinate this with in-store promotions.

Taking it all one step further, we'd love to know the demographic makeup of the targeted stores as well as shopping patterns. That would better enable us to put out the appropriate recipes and release them on days in which people are more likely to be shopping.

Of course, we'd want to hit the coupon world but I think we'd like to try something new. Maybe work with the store and with FourSquare to offer a coupon to anyone who checks in during specific weeks. The Mad Men episode takes place during Thanksgiving, so we'd want to drive traffic both during Thanksgiving week and the weeks leading up to Christmas.

On the media relations side it would be interesting to talk with food reporters about alternatives to the traditional Thanksgiving Turkey. In today's world ham may be seen as a bit passe, but I'm sure we could work with a local chef to get some updated recipes that start with a canned ham. That may even lead to a YouTube campaign in which we ask a series of chefs to show us what they can do with a canned ham, besides make it a paperweight. We'd ask the question "can you turn a canned ham into a Top Chef-worthy meal?"

Of course, these are just some of our thoughts. What would you do?


Going Mad over PR: What Mad Men didn't understand and what people still don't get

I love Mad Men. I love it for its 60s style, for its writing, character development and what it says about us today. The fact is, all period dramas (and futuristic science fiction) say more about who we are today than they do about the people they pretend to portray. In a way Mad Men lets us look back at our 1960s selves and say "aren't we better?" We don't smoke like that, we don't drink like that, we wear seatbelts when we ride in the car, we don't let our kids play with plastic, male bosses don't call their female colleagues "honey" etc.

The fourth season of Mad Men opened up with an episode named "Public Relations," which, being a PR guy, got me listening pretty closely. The last time I heard PR mentioned on Mad Men, lead-character Don Draper was deriding the profession by saying that PR guys think they can change the conversation, but they can't. Only advertising can change the conversation.

But in this episode "changing the conversation" is just what PR is expected to do. We open on Don Draper in the middle of an interview being asked by an Ad Age reporter "Who is Don Draper," a question that Ad Age has already said doesn't fairly portray who they were at the time (or are today). Yet, in the PR world this is a pretty basic question and one that can take up hours of pounding out to get right. We often open messaging sessions by asking "what does your company do?" and then spend the next 3 hours trying to answer that question. Seems so simple, yet, it can be much more nuanced.

Don blows the question.

A few scenes later they get the article and a Roger Sterling comments "this was supposed to be an advertisement for the firm." Wait, and ad? If they wanted an ad wouldn't they have bought one? Why an article when they wanted an ad?

Ah, we have a misunderstanding of what PR can do and what it does.

Still, PR does play a role. In a side-plot a few characters stage a PR stunt that gets the client in the Daily News, an ultimately successful gambit as far as driving sales. Yet, one laments "we can't charge them for this."

Oh really? Sure you can, but you're not a PR firm, you're playing in waters you don't understand.

The episode ends with Don in another interview, ostensibly having learned his lesson and now creating a much more interesting fact-based story. He is, in large part, using PR to change the conversation about himself and his firm.

All that said, people today still don't fully understand what PR does and what role it plays in a business. The one thing the leadership at Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Pryce never did was hire a PR firm. Why? Well, in a bit of fiction they just called up the Wall Street Journal and the reporter jumped.

What could a PR firm have done for the firm?

  • Set the message: Very simply put an outside firm would have helped define what this company is, who it wants to target and what key messages it needed to get across.
  • Position: Just a slight variation on the messaging, but during the episode you heard one of the sales executives trying to fit the new firm into the landscape of ad agencies around New York. A PR firm could help clarify this so they could speak to it in sales meetings.
  • Tell the story: In the course of the show we hear a bit about a controversial TV ad campaign for floor wax that Draper had created. I'm sure the Ad Age of 1964 would have loved a story that told the origin of that ad, what it tried to convey and its results.
  • Hit the media: Even in 1964 the Journal and Ad Age weren't the only two games in town. Not only were there the major daily papers, but there was also the evening newscasts as well as magazines and trade publications. I'm sure Supermarket News would have loved to know the results of a ham-selling campaign.

Yet, still today people don't fully understand what PR does. Not only in the context of needing a firm to help get the message out, but even in crafting what that message is. I recently watched as a group for which I do pro-bono work let an interview happen without my knowledge. The resulting article was of little help. It's not that the article is terrible, but it's just not as positive as it could have been. Just as the article about Don Draper wasn't terrible, but it wasn't nearly as useful to the firm as they needed.


Apple's Presser: The Morning After

It's no coincidence that Apple held its press event on a Friday. Anyone who has ever worked near politics will tell you that you drop a story on a Friday when you want it to die. It's an age-old trick. Even better, make it a summer Friday when all the editors are eager to start their weekends and people are less likely to be reading, watching and following the news on a Saturday.

So holding the event on a Friday at 10am PT (afternoon here on the east coast) was Apple's first great PR move in regards to "Antennagate." But oh, there were so many more.

The Song: Perhaps the best move was opening the press conference with a song that had gone viral thanks to a YouTube video and a bit of help from TechCrunch. It showed, up front, the key message Apple was trying to convey: our customers are happy, media are not. Of course, it also helped that TechCrunch promoted the video, so they felt good about themselves. Hold onto that fact, it'll come back later.

The Facts: Fact 1 is that Apple has facts and the media don't. Seems kinda obvious now, but it's difficult for people to argue for a recall when Apple can turn around and say that only .55 percent of people have complained about the antenna and the iPhone 4.0 has only a 1.7 percent return rate, far below that of the 3GS. Apple probably would have released these numbers over time, but Friday's event certainly gave them a bigger stage. Fact 2: All smartphones have the same kind of problems. This is probably the fact that will be most debated in the coming weeks, but it also turns the attention from the iPhone to the entire industry.

No Apologies: When Steve Jobs walks on stage you're not going to get an apology. No way, ain't gonna happen. He's there for good news and to tell you that the company is producing great things. He's not there to apologize. If you want that then you're going to have to speak with someone else. Still, he did admit that Apple isn't perfect, then positioned that in the age old "we strive to be better" message. That, of course, lead directly into the next positive.

Feel the Love: Oh how Apple customers love Apple. Even Michael Arrington is a fanboy. And Steve Jobs positioned everything perfectly, giving the press-conference equivalent of Paul McCartney standing on stage screaming to a loud fan "I love you too!"

Just one more thing: The iPhone will be available in white at the end of July. So I'm sure there are plenty of people ready to scream "shut up and take my money!"

Of course, not everything was perfect, but I have only one real criticism: Did Steve Jobs really have to spit in the eye of the media? He called a Bloomberg story "total bullshit," and called the New York Times liars by saying that their story about a forthcoming software bug fix was "patently false." Of course, the whole event was there to show how the Consumer Reports story wasn't worth the paper it's printed on, so I guess Apple did want to stick a thumb in the eye of the media. Though, starting with the Antenna Song certainly endeared Apple more to TechCrunch. So maybe Jobs is just playing to a specific audience.


The iPhone 4: PR Problem or Feature?

When my iPhone 3GS drops a call I blame AT&T. It never occurred to me to blame Apple. Why would I? They designed a beautiful device that does so much more than make calls! Though, the Wall Street Journal suggests that I should, in fact, blame Apple. An article today notes that Apple not only knew about the iPhone 4.0 antenna issues, but also knew that it had issues with the antenna in earlier phones, including the 3GS.

In a piece on Digits, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries lists 5 things Apple should do today to make amends with its customers, including apologize and offer both temporary and permanent fixes.

But all this assumes that the antenna issue is an actual problem.

"But Chuck," you say. "How is this not a problem? Of course it's a problem!"

Well, it sort of is, but it sort of isn't. An iPhone 4.0 user said to me, after reading my last post, that the antenna issue is well overblown. Then he added "and the battery life is incredible!" The sarcastic side of me thinks "if you can't make calls that battery will probably last forever."

But the point is, he's willing to overlook the antenna so he can use the other features of the phone, provided it offers a lot more. And we all know how great Steve Jobs is at offering "one more thing."

That's sort of what's behind the blog post by Antonio Rodriguez, in which he points out that the antenna's internal design allows for a symmetry that will come into play later, possibly in the form of an active secondary touch surface on the back of the phone.

So is this a design flaw or a feature? We'll find out more today.


A journalist, a lawyer and a PR professional walk into a bar...

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it may not be all that funny to some. Two stories in the most recent "On the Media" have me thinking about the shifting equilibria of both the legal and journalism worlds, and what their implications are for the rest of us...

In "The End of Libel?", Brooke Gladstone reports on the poor prospects that some lawyers at larger media properties are facing as the number of libel suits has dropped over the past few years. Before you get all teary eyed for the lawyers' plights (some of my best friends' wives are lawyers), there's some speculation in the piece that the lawsuits may simply be spread out more thinly as more, smaller properties pop-up in the post-broadcast landscape. But plaintiffs, the story concludes, may be best served these days by taking their case to the court of the public through their blogs, podcasts, Facebook pages, etc.

The other, more disturbing conclusion, is that news outlets -- blogs included -- are simply being much more cautious about potential lawsuits, and are avoiding deliberate, touchy issues. My gut -- call me the eternal optimist -- is that there will always be someone with nothing to lose, and now that it's so much easier to publish and reach a large audience, the power of the however more broadly defined "media" has not decreased. This may not be comforting to the corporate lawyers now facing the prospect of having to hang their own shingle after years in the corporate world.

In "The Crowdsourcing Dilemma," we see another dynamic playing out as Bob Garfield describes how he turned from believer (he used to source the cover for his last book) to, well, nervous believer as he notes that the service has expanded beyond designers to also include writing projects. Like the corporate libel lawyer with no more business, he's worried he could eventually be replaced by cheaper labor. And crowdSPRING isn't the only game in town -- we interviewed Saul Hansell, the editor of AOL's project, in our inaugural podcast about that site's content outsourcing business model.

Just like the search game, in which both white hats and black hats work to strike an ongoing balance with Google's search algorithms to reach to top of the organic results ( sits squarely in the white hat category), content (the good and the crappy, of which sits squarely in the middle) is in a fight with filters (technological and logical) to find its way into our inboxes, feeds and minds. Media outlets, to stay relevant, need to find multiple ways to connect with us, and give us the choice as to how we participate. There are still many opportunities for media to reach us, and as long as they are, there are opportunities to cross barriers of both taste and law.

And if you, dear reader, think the implications of this shifting dynamic are limited to just writers and lawyers, you've got a big lesson coming your way very soon.


Apple's PR Problem... huh?

So Consumer Reports gave the iPhone a black eye by not recommending it. Sure, it makes for great headlines and has a lot of Apple fans up in arms. Over at Cult of Mac they even interviewed several PR experts to say that this is a disaster for Apple and that Apple MUST recall the iPhone 4.0.

So, how many of you iPhone users turned to Consumer Reports before buying the phone? Anyone? Hello? Go ahead, raise your hand...

BusinessInsider notes that trashing the iPhone is a great PR move for Consumer Reports. That may be true.

You want a better phone than an iPhone? There are a number of better options, just ask my business partner who has a Droid. My wife got herself a Droid Incredible and loves it. Besides, we all know the iPhone drops calls and as a phone is pretty lousy, but it has a great UI and is very easy to use when it comes to apps. We live with the lack of Flash and other quirks because Apple has allowed us to purchase their piece of equipment. Oh, thank you Steve Jobs.

Droid Increidble Needs a Caption, the iPhone Doesn't

When a friend got her iPhone 3GS she told her husband that she had to give up a little love for him so she could make room for her iPhone. My wife's Droid Incredible doesn't have the same impact (or maybe she just hasn't told me about her Droid lover just yet).

Futurama had a great scene recently in which everyone wanted an "Eyephone." After standing for hours in a line Fry finally gets to the front where he greets an unsmiling clerk. "OK, it's $500, you have no choice of carrier, the battery can't hold a charge and the reception isn't very good."

"Shut up and take my money!" Fry shouts.

The scene is funny because it's true.

So what will Apple do? Apple doesn't do PR the way that other companies do it and I don't expect it to start now. Even if the PR team acknowledges hard-nosed tactics like taking down negative posts in their forums, they'll probably say something like "we own the forums and acted in the best interest of our community of readers."

And what about the iPhone 4.0 antenna issue? You can follow Consumer Reports' advice and put a bit of duct tape on it, but I doubt anyone will do that. Why have an iPhone if you're going to mess with it's beautiful lines?

As for Apple, they'll probably publicly ignore the problem, then come out with an iPhone 4.1 and offer all 4.0 people an "upgrade" for a small fee.

Then we'll all shout together "shut up and take my money!"


Stephen Baker: Fresh Ground Podcast #21

FG_Podcast_Ep_21.jpgI first met Steve Baker several years ago when he was working on his book The Numerati. This was after he had already co-authored an influential cover story on blogs for BusinessWeek that acted as a wakeup call to corporate America. The message: ignore blogs (and social media) at your peril.

His later cover story on math lead to a book contract for the Numerati, for which he took a sabbatical from his long-time weekly reporting job. Of course, he had to come back to BusinessWeek before setting off again, but this time the decision was made for him. Bloomberg had purchased the venerable publication from McGraw-Hill and changes there included massive layoffs.

Steve now blogs on his own site is writing a new book, which is due out in early 2011. During his interview with us via Skype, he talked about leaving BusinessWeek and starting a new phase of journalistic life. Among the interesting quotes from the interview:

"I didn't enjoy my time back [at BusinessWeek after the first book-leave] as much, in part because the magazine was failing and it's no fun to be part of sinking ship."

"The money [at Bloomberg] comes from the data, journalism by itself couldn't create the kind of empire they have"

"The advertisers can tune into your own interest and your behaviors, learn about you and target you with advertising, so they get to know you much better than an advertiser in a print publication."

"I think you need to accompany book writing these days with blogging and keeping up with people on Twitter and other more social media platforms. And then once you do a book then perhaps you can get more revenue by doing things like speaking."

"The one positive that comes out of [the changes in journalism] is that there is more opportunity for people in their 20s because organizations are getting rid of people like me in their 40s and 50s."

"Even writing about IBM… I'm benefiting from IBM's own publicity and in a sense I'm part of it. That puts me in a different role and I just have to be clear with people about what my possible conflicts are… but it's something that we all deal with in one way or another because we have to find new revenue streams."

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