Archive for April, 2009

Twitter and financial communications

The Wall Street Journal has run an interesting piece about using Twitter to build relations with investors.

US attorneys say that companies should include standard disclaimers and not disclose financial information on Twitter that isn’t available elsewhere.

Meanwhile the SEC  has its own Twitter account and is encouraging companies to use Twitter to communicate with its investors.

It is amusing that a key financial regulatory body is using Twitter whilst the companies it regulates are still unsure about how to proceed. The point is that financial communications teams can be using Twitter now – taking the same precautions as they always have done- instead of press releases; and they can by-pass traditional media and bring their companies up-to-date.

Smaller businesses too can benefit from social media

Where business is concerned, most of the conversation about social media revolves around large corporates. It’s the big brands like Dell, Microsoft, McDonalds, British Airways, Tesco and Barclays that have an obvious use for blogs and social networks as a means to communicate with their audiences.

But what about smaller companies? There’s an interesting piece in Monday’s Chicago Tribune about how in the US they too are extending their reach through social media. A couple who own a yacht cruise charter company say bookings are strong, thanks to the group and fan pages they recently launched on Facebook; they also Twitter frequently.

Bradsdeals.com, a consumer website that identifies savings, started using Twitter in March, and now has 2500 followers. This month is launched a fan page on Facebook, and now has 1200 users. As a result, traffic to the site is up 150% from a year ago, at more than a million hits a month.

The site’s owner says he hesitated to go down this route because he didn’t think social media would fit its demographic, which tends to be people in their late thirties. But according to Nielsen Online the largest growth in social media users last year came from the 35- to 49-year-old group.

For other interesting case studies read the full article here.

Twitter – the only communication tool your organisation needs?

The FT’s Lucy Kellaway, always an astute commenter on business life, has an interesting column today about Twitter

Kellaway has been following business leaders on Exec Tweets and says that many of them post tweets that are simply dull or embarrassing.

Interestingly, however, she doesn’t go on from that to deduce that Twitter is pointless. On the contrary, she says, Twitter may be “potentially the best communication tool there is”. The great advantage of Twitter, she argues, is that tweets have to be short. A good user of Twitter will be able to convey information that is concise, pithy and relevant.

Forcing everyone to say what they meant in 140 characters would deal with the communications overload “at a stroke”, she says. As she points out: “The bulk of internal e-mails are exercises in back-covering or throat-clearing, and so if they were forced down to their barest essentials it would become clear that there was nothing there at all.”

Imagine if your organisation banned email and forced everyone to use Twitter. Instead of having to wade through hundreds of long, dull emails that conveyed nothing, your managers would just have to follow the tweets of a handful of key people and obtain all the information they needed in a few single sentences.

But who’ll be brave enough to try it?

Intel leads the way with social media

For those companies just starting out with social media, it can be useful to see what other organisations are doing. Especially ones, like Intel, who have a well-developed programme which has won praise from informed bloggers.

kari-002If you are interested to know how to get started, read this interview with Kari Aake, Intel’s director of consumer and social media.

Kari says that Intel is  aiming to use social media to ‘drive conviction for Intel’ ie they want to make their customers feel good about them.

Now they integrate social  media into their marketing, PR and business strategies. Easier said than done. So how did they start? By listening and learning. At ItsOpen that is just the approach that we encourage our clients to take and on the whole it seems to be working well.

Zappos YouTube product videos

Zappos.com is cleverly using quirky product videos on its blog which are also available on YouTube. If you like what you see on the video you can simply click through from the video to buy the product. Using LinkedTube which enables you to link to your e-commerce web site. How neat is that?

Now don’t tell me that there are not other retailers out there who could
be using these methods to engage their social media audiences and drive sales?

What’s good about these videos are that they are fresh, direct and quirky. It’s like you are having a conversation with a fun friend. Which is spot on. They are not slick traditional PR corporate ad videos. Far from it. Zappos has got a great intuitive grasp of the power of social media. It’s a valuable case study.

Pizza Hut is looking for a ‘Twintern’

pizza-hutPizza Hut is advertising for a summer “Twintern” – someone to be their social media journalist who will share what is happening at the company and interact with fans in 140 characters or less.

The intern will also monitor online conversations about the brand, alerting staff of any developing negative conversations.

The internship will be based at the company’s headquarters in Dallas and will be an integral part of the PR team, focusing on new and emerging social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and others.

Good to see a major company taking Twitter seriously. There is so much that you can do with Twitter. One service we are offering is: using Twitter to communicate with journalists. And we have a real live journalist who can tell you what works best.

There is a risk with Twitter that you just go ahead and do it. Without thinking what will work best and what are the best policies to follow. So we strongly advise taking specialist advice before plunging into the world of tweets.

Also despite what Pizza Hut is doing. You don’t have to be young to use Twitter or to understand its power as a new communications channel.

Don’t write off Second Life

second-lifeAfter the initial buzz around Second Life three or four years ago, the initial hopes that it would prove a valuable tool for business have apparently been disappointed. Commentators have criticised it for being clunky to use, for suffering from technical problems and for being nothing more than another way for Internet geeks to waste time.

Yet Second Life hasn’t gone away. A number of global businesses such as IBM, PA Consulting and BT have set up shop there, though mostly on a small scale. IBM is the company that has put most resources into the technology, using it for training sessions, collaboration between people in different geographies, and for modelling particular scenarios for its customers.

As usual, however, it is the young who will determine whether the technology fades or flourishes. Universities and colleges have been discovering the value of virtual classrooms: at Leicester University, archaeology students have walked round a virtual recreation of a Sami society in Second Life, while paramedic students at St George’s Hospital tackle simulations of real life accidents. In examples such as these, Second Life has demonstrated its usefulness by letting participants do things that simply can’t be done any other way.

Despite its current small-scale use, my prediction is that Second Life – or a similar virtual world – could, in a few years’ time, be as popular as Facebook is now. Why? It’s not just that the technology will improve and become more user-friendly. It’s that the next generation will be ready for it.

While a lot of media attention focuses on Generation Y and their liking for Twitter and instant messaging, if we want to know what the future looks like, we should study the under-12s. And they’re all using Club Penguin, Bin Weevils and Runescape – mini virtual worlds that are as natural to them as writing an email is to the over-40s.

Don’t believe me? Come back in 10 years and tell me if I’m wrong.

Time to join conversations in your markets

The arrival of social media  clearly heralds a change which companies cannot ignore. Key audiences are no longer passive recipients of company messages. They are participating. They are having conversations about brands and company news. They are making their own comments and sharing them with their peers in real-time.

Broadcasting messages to these audiences in a traditional mass media style is not going to work. No one likes megaphone style messaging especially when they are with their friends and colleagues. Besides it is anti social behaviour. It makes no attempt to listen and be relevant. Nor does it try to add something useful or interesting to add value.

In order to retain customer  loyalty, companies are going to have to reinvent the way they communicate through social media. It’s going to be far more one-to-one and personal. Traditionally companies would reserve all their personal attention for a reporter from the FT or the Wall Street Journal or the Today Programme. Now companies are beginning to realise that individuals through social media deserve respect and attention if they are to remain or be converted into brand custodians. Especially as they have extensive social networks of their own.

These individuals will not be satisfied with traditional company messaging or brochures. They require something more authentic, honest and useful to them. Otherwise they will ignore you because you don’t sound like one of them.

This poses a number of challenges.  If you respond to what is being said about you through social media, what are the risks of legitimising a small group of customers who are spreading false stories about you? If you post a comment in response to a piece on a blog, are you prepared to enter into a conversation? Is there a risk that you will come over big brother-ish and scare the living daylights out of an individual who never expected to meet a representative of a big company personally on Twitter?

Using social media is quite  different to traditional methods of communication. As a former journalist, I can remember how reassuring it was to have an editor at the Guardian to check my work before it was published and to know that they would vet any reader letters before deciding whether or not to publish them. Now when I post for my Media Week blog, Bloggerati, publication is instantaneous and readers comments can appear in minutes. I can remember my initial stage nerves. However you soon get used to it. People are different when they realise they are accountable for their opinions. If you are polite and respectful online, it can go a long way.

For some companies there are certain audiences who will never agree with your views. However I believe you can draw some of the poison out by entering into reasonable discussions and explaining your position as best you can. So long as you talk like a human being and not in the language of corporate spin.

Companies who participate more,  who observe the social etiquette of particular communities, and talk one to one with more audience members will do better. Rather than allowing festering comments and misconceptions to linger, the company which tackles them head on in a fresh and honest way will gain respect and build up their social capital online.

Seeing the amount  of social media comments and posts about your business for the first time is daunting. Large organisations are seen as easy targets. But when individuals see and meet people within these organisations,  some of their stereotypical views will melt. Imagine a group of people talking disparagingly about someone in the corner of a room. Then they meet the person and discover that person is quite different to what they have been told. It will be hard for them to cling to their same views from then on. It might be uncomfortable to begin with but if that person persists in being open and friendly and respectful, they are bound to begin to wield more cultural influence in a positive way than they did before.

Many companies who are fearful of participating with social media, soon discover it is much easier than they think when they develop their own platforms so they can communicate directly with key members of their audiences. If you find you have people talking about you on blogs, Twitter, Facebook and You Tube (which you probably have) and you are not there, effectively you are silent. But create a platform for yourself through Twitter, and blogs, and through participation you will begin to gain social experience and providing you use these channels effectively, you will begin to exert cultural influence through the audiences and their networks that you engage with.

Entering into conversations will require companies to reinvent the ways they communicate. It will require them to reinvent working patterns. But no company can ignore social media and those that reinvent themselves more quickly will do better faster and I think the world of corporate communications will be better for it. There is an opportunity here to empower experts within your organisation to impress and motivate customers. Conversations are the new marketing.

Those hesitating to engage with social media. Those that talk up the risks too much should consider the fate of some newspapers who have for ages treated the internet as a threat and have criticised Google without identifying the opportunities for themselves to create new types of journalism. There are new types of corporate communications to be created and now is the time to begin creating them. Being ostrich-like will only leave the way open for cannier competitors.

Crowdsurfing: New leadership skills

mtphotodoc3The last in a series of extracts from Martin Thomas’s new book Crowdsurfing: Surviving and Thriving in the Age of Consumer Empowerment

Some business leaders and politicians are natural crowd surfers.  They are pragmatic and flexible, without appearing to be weak.  They are endlessly fascinated by and curious about human behaviour and especially that of their customers.  They also have the ability to anticipate consumer demands and needs and then respond in the right way and at the right time.

Many of the entrepreneurs behind the world’s most successful new brands possess these crowd surfing skills.  But others have had to train themselves to be become crowd surfers, often having been forced to change their behaviour and that of the companies they lead.  Michael Dell by his own admission had to learn the hard way, after the blogging community – Jeff Jarvis’ “raging mob with pitchforks” – came close to bringing his business to its knees.

What type of personality is best suited to becoming a crowd surfer?  Writing on the subject of leadership, historian Niall Ferguson has described good leaders as “the ones that realise (a) I’m fallible, and (b) the world is chaotic.”   Echoing the sentiment expressed by Intel’s Andrew Grove in his best-selling book, ‘Only the paranoid survive’, Ferguson also suggests that, “insecurity is … an important part of being a good leader.  You have to be aware of your vulnerability.” (Business Strategy Review, Summer 2007)

One of the most common sentiments expressed by many business leaders is that things feel out of control.  For some this is highly disturbing – it conflicts with their idea that management is all about the imposition of control and the search for predictability and certainty.  Trying to find order amidst the chaos is the thing that keeps them awake at night.

Sir Martin Sorrell, the head of agency giant WPP, is clearly not one of them: “these days, complexity goes with the territory.  Anybody who believes that life is going to become simpler in this day and age needs to have their head examined.  In an increasingly networked world, the 21st century is not for tidy minds.  I think – certainly in our business – trying to simplify complexity actually ends up in destroying value; that keeping complexity adds to value.”  (Management Today, April 2008)

Leaders, such as Sorrell, appear to be the ones most likely to thrive in this new world – they are comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, possibly even chaos.  Tom Peters, as befitting the author of a book called ‘Thriving on chaos’, describes them as leaders who “love the mess” and defines ‘crappy leadership’ as “The leader who needs to be comfortably in control.”

Martin Thomas has spent 23 years running marketing communications agencies in PR, advertising, sponsorship, entertainment marketing and new media.  The blog of the book is www.crowdsurfing.net

Innocent benefits from social media conversations

innocentIn their new book, ‘Innocent: our story and some things we’ve learned‘ (published by Penguin), the founders of Innocent share some interesting insights about social media.

Today Innocent has a blog, films on YouTube, plenty of Flickr groups, Facebook fans and Twitter feeds. The founders say: ‘they’re all new ways in which we can have conversations with people. We like conversations, because they’re two way and if they’re good, you learn stuff. Basically, if there’s a new way in which our drinkers want to communicate with us, then we’ll get involved.’

Innocent, which has drawn criticism for its recent investment from Coke, has not been afraid to air its views and solicit comments from its customers on its blog. Blogging, Innocent says, has enabled the company to stay focused on its drinkers.

innocent-veg-potsInnocent launched its Veg Pots in 2008 but did not foresee the reaction they would get from vegans on their blog. Vegans, who they thought would like their Veg Pots, started posting comments compalaining about the presence of honey in a couple of Veg Pots. As honey comes from bees, vegans could not consume a Veg Pot. In direct response, new recipes were developed by Innocent in response to the feedback and a new range was launched. ‘Just by being porous and listening, we turned a negative into a product improvement’say the founders of Innocent.

I’m a great fan of Innocent’s social media approach and the way they are using social media to connect better with their customers. They have grasped the fact that customers will talk about them through social media whether they like it or not, and that not conversing, not participating, is not an option. Customer loyalty is not a fixed commodity and I think that customer loyalty will be built increasingly on how companies listen, respond and carry out conversations through social media.

Obviously you  have to filter and condense and interpret the data you receive and be smart about what it is telling you. As Innocent says, ‘find the nuggets of pure gold that you can realistically action’.