Roger Goodell, it seems, is having his Richard Nixon moment. The NFL commissioner’s week got off to a very bad start – and it’s only gotten worse from there. Over the past several days, public perception of the commissioner – and, as a result, the entire league – has gone from one of someone indifferent to domestic abuse and violence against women to someone either incompetent or knowingly lying to the public. Neither of these are particularly good, which is why the drumbeat of people calling for his resignation seems to grow by the hour.

While the story itself is by and large a sad and disturbing one for everyone involved, it does offer some timely reminders about the right and wrong ways to go about handling a crisis when it comes to communications. We can look at how to do it right by examining all the things the commish has done wrong to this point.

  • Be prepared. It’s not just for the Boy Scouts anymore. Perhaps the most glaring issue throughout the entire crisis this week has been how utterly unprepared the league has seemed to handle and address it. While any crisis and its particular circumstances are unique, having at least a basic, step-by-step plan for responding to it is a universal must for every organization. Many people think the NFL’s haphazard response stems in large part from the league’s widespread cultural popularity, which may have lulled executives into a false sense of security and infallibility. Which leads us to our second point..
  • Be humble. It’s rather clear from the very beginning of this situation all the way back in July that the NFL seriously misjudged the audience response. No one doubts the insane popularity of the league and the sport; conversely, the league never should have doubted the public’s ability to turn on it for a perceived misdeed of this magnitude, especially in this day and age, when social media enables outrage to spread much more quickly and widely. No matter how much your customers love you, always be humble enough to know it could change at any moment.
  • Be smart. Seriously. Don’t do dumb stuff, like lie or hide from public view as a crisis begins to unfold. It’s easier said than done in the heat of a moment and the trenches of a crisis response, but being smart, measured and appropriate in your response helps stop the crisis from spiraling further out of control.
  • Be honest. As Nixon showed us, the coverup is ALMOST ALWAYS worse than the crime. Now, to be fair, we’re not sure if Goodell is lying about not seeing the video, but it sure doesn’t look like he’s being truthful. And perception, especially in these situations, is reality. Better to be honest and upfront – even if it highlights your shortcomings or incompetence as a leader – than to be deceitful to protect your pride and your ego. We’re a forgiving country, and we love giving second chances. But not to liars.

If nothing else, use this week’s NFL fiasco as a reminder to make sure you’re prepared to handle a crisis. Like a fire extinguisher, you may not ever need to use it. But would you feel safe in your building without a fire extinguisher? The same goes for a crisis communications plan. As we always say, “Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.”

Don’t like this post? That’ll be $500.

Don't be meanThis week, a hotel in Hudson, NY, found itself in the center of an Internet sensation it did not want – but one it had no one else to blame but itself.

This hotel, it seems, really took its online reputation seriously, and really wanted its guests to give it good reviews to strengthen its ranking on a variety of online sites, including Yelp, TripAdvisor, Foursquare and others. All well and good, of course, that a hotel would want good reviews online to help build its very important and very valuable online reputation. It’s the means the hotel chose in pursuing these ends where it ran into some serious trouble.

Instead of focusing on the aspects it can most directly control pertaining to its guests’ experience that would bring about a positive review – clean rooms, friendly service, quality food and drink, etc. – this hotel took the road less traveled. It threatened its guests with a $500 fine if they said mean things about it online. Specifically, in language inexplicably laid out right on its website, the hotel warned prospective guests that “there will be a $500 fine deducted from your deposit for every negative review…placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and / or attending your wedding or event.”

Well, after this audacious little policy was pointed out by a few high-profile “internet sites,” you can probably guess what happened next. Previous guests came out of the woodwork – and went out of their way – to absolutely destroy the hotel on Yelp and several other internet sites.

The hotel’s response was almost as ill-advised as the policy that caused it – quickly pulling the language from its website and then claiming the whole thing was a big, inside, misunderstood joke. The damage, unfortunately, had already been done – the hotel’s maniacal obsession with driving up its social rankings and reputation had the absolute opposite effect. It’s a humorous but telling reminder that, yes strategy (in this case, to drive up social ranking and reputation) is important, but so too are the tactics you use in service of that strategy.

Does your social strategy include customer service?

Let’s start with the obvious: It’s very important for brands to have a strategic plan in place when it comes to their social media presence. It’s important because companies can leverage social media for any number of strategic reasons – to communicate, to engage, to promote, to listen, to sell.

All of which are essential, to be sure, because they all help a brand bring in new customers. What is equally important, however, and what brands often fall short in using social media effectively for, is engaging with their existing customers.

Here, it seems, is where there’s a lot of ground for brands to make up, not to mention a huge disconnect between how brands perceive their handling of customer service via social media and how their customers perceive it. Indeed, a recent study showed that approximately 80 percent of companies believe they provide superior customer experiences via social – only 8 percent (!) of their paying customers agree. A big reason for that Grand Canyon-esque gap may be due to another figure from the same research – that 20 percent of companies rarely, if ever, respond to customer inquiries or complaints made via social.

There are few things more damaging to a brand’s perception via its social presence than a customer complaint sitting there, unanswered, lingering, smoldering, haunting. Most often, a complaint goes unanswered because brands either don’t know it’s there or don’t know how to handle the complaint appropriately in a quasi-public forum. Neither reason is good; however, there are just a few easy steps brands can take to address both and become more effective at handling customer complaints.

  1. Build an alert system. All of the key social platforms have a wealth of built-in notification tools to alert you immediately any time a customer leaves any type of comment via your official presence, including complaints. Getting notified almost immediately whenever a complaint is posted makes it easier to…
  2. Acknowledge the complaint. It doesn’t say “solve the problem,” does it? This is where brands often get caught, because they don’t know how to solve the problem raised by the complaint right then and there via social. Odds are, they wouldn’t ever be able to, and that’s okay. All they need to do is acknowledge the complain – “We’re sorry to hear you’re having a problem, Customer X, and want to make this right. Can you email us at EMAIL ADDRESS so we can learn more?” It’s the last part of this exchange that’s most important, because it enables you to…
  3. Move the conversation offline. Why get into a complaint-specific conversation in the comments of a Facebook post while your other followers watch? No good can come of it! Instead, ask the customer to call or email and provide the proper contact info for both. Not only does it enable you to handle the complaint in a more personalized and intimate way, it also gauges how serious the customer and the complaint are. (You may find this shocking, but sometimes customers just like to blow off a little steam in the comments of your brand page. If they have to pick up the phone to call or send you an email, they may not actually do it.) By acknowledging and moving the conversation offline, you can then remove the complaint from your page. And, if the customer decides to come back to offer compliments for the way his or her complaint was handled, that’s just icing on the cake.

When it comes to handling customer complaints via social, you don’t want your approval rating to be lower than Congress, do you? The good news – avoiding a fate worse than that can be easily accomplished. And it’s accomplished directly when brands ensure their social strategy focuses on not just new customers – but existing ones as well.

The move beyond marketing

“Marketing is the means. Brand management should be the goal.”

We’re big fans – as we’ve discussed here recently – of saying that it’s not you who owns your brand. Your customers do. This brings with it some inherent challenges, as well as some growing contradictions with how we (agencies, marketers, etc.) have traditionally promoted products and services.

P&G_Company1803283hsxsuxIndeed, the phrase “marketing” itself is slowly becoming an anachronism, as some of the biggest companies out there are realizing. Procter & Gamble, for example, made some waves in our world when it recently announced that it would no longer have a “marketing” team made up of “marketing managers” anymore; instead, the consumer-goods behemoth said it would now focus on “brand management.”

What’s the difference, you ask, outside of mere semantics? Aren’t marketing and brand management one in the same? To the contrary, and as the quote above helps to explain, they can – and should – be quite different in how brands view and approach them. Marketing, at its core, is about driving demand and creating actionable sales opportunities and leads. In essence, marketing is spending money to make money.

You_need_only_one_soap,_Ivory_soap_-_Strobridge_&_Co._Lith._-_Restoration_by_Adam_CuerdenBrand management, on the other hand, takes a more holistic approach. It recognizes products as assets, ones with a longer arc of a life cycle that lasts well past the point of sale. It recognizes the story of a product and how it helps define it and make it distinct, in turn making it more competitive and appealing. Success in marketing? Defined by leads, sales, volume. Success in brand management? Those same metrics, to be sure, but it’s broader (and more intangible) than that, too. “The focus is less on how…and much more on why,” as the article notes.

The impact of marketing can be felt by helping to drive top-line revenue through sales; brand management strengthens the bottom line by increasing overall corporate value. You can market a product to no end, but its potential value in the eyes of consumers is severely limited if the value of the brand delivering that product is diminished in its perception and value.

The question, then, to ask yourself: are you marketing your products, or are you managing your brand?

The next Facebook? A million little Facebooks

Each its own little universe.

Each its own little universe.

In the beginning, there was Ning. And Zaadz. And Tribe. And a bunch of other niche sites that brought together people from around the country and around the globe because of their shared interest in a topic, hobby or activity. This was way, way back, in the early 2000s. The original social networks developed organically, grew around singular topics and were often no more than glorified chat rooms and community forums. But all of the foundational components of what we now know as social media were there.

And then along came Facebook. It changed how we thought about and interacted with our social networks. Instead of niche networks, you could get everything you wanted under one roof – regardless of interests, hobbies, topics and activities. The introduction of groups and pages especially moved the concept of niche networks to within the walls of the entire Facebook ecosystem, meaning you never had to leave the site, no matter what you wanted to talk about.

With its 10th birthday now behind it, Facebook is starting to show a little gray. Because of this, many people – young ones especially – are now on the lookout for the “next Facebook.” It’s a question we get asked often ourselves – what’s the next Facebook? What’s the next great global, all-encompassing social network out there we should know about?

The answer we give to this question – based on our experience and where we see the future of social marketing headed – often surprises: there won’t be a next Facebook. Instead, there will be a million little Facebooks. This is because a funny thing is happening – we’re seeing a strong and sustained resurgence in niche networks – highly targeted, topical and specialized sites that cater to enthusiasts of all different sorts of things. A return to the way it was in the beginning.

As this TechCrunch article points out, this is especially true for professionals; we’re seeing dedicated networks pop up catering to doctors, software engineers, academics, data scientists and even the military. But this swing back toward niche networks is true for personal interests as well, as any member of VampireFreaks.com or BirdPost or Behance will surely attest.

The next question, of course, becomes, what does this mean for you? While Facebook isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, brands certainly need to be aware of existing niche sites out there that may align with its products, services and values. As with many things, this trend brings with it both challenge and opportunity:

Challenge: Audiences become more fragmented and isolated, which can make targeting more difficult and labor-intensive. Targeting is easier on broad social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn because that’s where everyone is. But you can easily end up targeting a lot of people who may not be interested in you or your product. Conversely, finding your target audience via smaller niche networks can be much more time-consuming and less scientific. When you find them, however…

Opportunity: Members of niche networks are more likely to be much, much more interested in brands that align with their interests and passions. If you’re not a crafter, you probably don’t care too much to see what’s going on at CraftersCommunity. If you are a crafter, on the other hand, it may be your single favorite place to spend time online, which is why these types of audiences – though smaller – can be so valuable to brands.

So instead of asking yourself what the next Facebook is, the more important question to ask – and answer – for your brand is, which of these million little Facebooks is most important to my target audience?

The Streisand Effect strikes again

The Streisand EffectIt’s every marketer’s dream come true – your products so inspire people that they voluntarily organize around your brand. They meet, converse, share ideas, inspire one another and, most importantly, buy more of your product. All without you having to lift a finger. They connect online and in person from all parts of the globe, and all because of you. Your products become part of their lives – indeed, they help define an entirely new lifestyle.

This dream scenario can quickly turn into a nightmare for some marketers, unfortunately. Even worse, it does so because of their own actions.

Some companies, it turns out, don’t take too kindly to strangers appropriating their identity without asking first – or paying for it. They see their name being appropriated unofficially by this group – no matter their positive intentions – and demand, usually through lawyers, that they cease and desist such unsanctioned and unbridled fandom immediately. As a result, they draw additional, much more negative attention to themselves, looking like a big bully picking on the small guy who only wants to be his friend.

It’s called the Streisand Effect – calling more attention to something by trying to eliminate it. IKEA found itself falling victim to this particular phenomenon recently when it sent a takedown notice to an unofficial website, ikeahacks.com, which served as a vibrant community of enthusiasts, sharing ideas about how to “hack” a wide variety of products you could find at the Swedish purveyor of furniture, accessories and meatballs.

The story quickly spread online, and IKEA became the big, bad bully in the eyes of the public. Things got especially bad when the site’s purveyor announced she’d have to shut it down completely rather than pay expensive lawyers. The outcry grew from there until finally IKEA relented and worked with the site on a compromise that would allow it to live another day.

This most recent example from IKEA is representative of what can often happen when brands encounter this unfamiliar new territory of a group of devoted fans – they feel the need to do something to acknowledge that passion and loyalty. Problem is, that something tends to backfire – or worse.

As can often be the case, the best solution is the easiest (and, at the same time, most counterintuitive): sit back and watch your growing, passionate fan base connect and engage organically. Look for opportunities to support and strengthen, of course, and then get back out of the way. Otherwise, you may be next to fall victim to the Streisand Effect.

Friendly reminder – You do not own your brand

Well, technically you own it. You hold the copyrights and trademarks and service marks for your logo and name and all that good stuff. What you don’t own is much more important and valuable – the perception of your brand.

You can – and you should – do everything you can to shape and positively impact how the public perceives your brand, of course, but at the end of the day it’s up to them how they view it and what it stands for.

In the “good ol’ days” of traditional media (print, TV, radio, etc.) this was a bit easier for brands to accomplish. Nowadays, however, in the world of social media and real-time conversations with consumers and customers, brand perception is a much more fluid, subjective concept. A brand can devise of a campaign centered on a hashtag or phrase, for example, only to see a concerted effort by a group of consumers or activists derail it by connecting the phrase to negative perceptions of your brand – or worse.

Chevron found this out the hard way recently – and also found out that Twitter is prime real estate for this type of brandjacking, as it’s often called. Unlike other examples of brandjacking, however, what was most eye-opening was that the hashtag (#AskChevron) wasn’t even started by the company.

No, this time, #AskChevron came out from a group of Twitter users that wanted to point a list of transgressions it believes Chevron is responsible for. As you might imagine, the hashtag took off on Twitter, catching Chevron completely off guard as the phrase shot to the top of trending topics on the site within hours.

Chevron brandjacking

What does this mean for you and your brand? While you probably don’t have to worry about a Twitter hashtag trashing your brand going global any time soon, it certainly serves as a reminder just how much the game has changed when it comes to how we shape public perception today – and how much easier it is for those who don’t own your brand to still play a very important role in owning how it’s perceived. What it also means is that hyper vigilance – always being aware of what’s being said or shared about your brand – and reacting when necessary is as important as ever, and will only become more important in the coming years.

Is the sales funnel finished?

“…the primary problem with the funnel is that the buying process is no longer linear.”

The sales funnel – the staple of marketing classes, business school and just about every product campaign this side of the 20th century. It’s so ubiquitous because it’s so universal in its truth. But is the age of social chipping away at the infallibility of the sales funnel?

Used to be that, if you were a marketing director or agency account exec, your strategic goal was to get consumers into the first stage of the funnel – awareness. Once there, you gently but firmly guided them through the subsequent stages – Interest, Consideration, Intent, Evaluation – before arriving at their final destination, Purchase.


The traditional sales funnel

Image credit: http://goo.gl/wq43pG

This was all well and good when marketers had more control over access to the funnel and could reasonably expect to move everyone through the first phase and then downward after that. That’s no longer the case, as we’re seeing and as this post from Harvard Business Review helps explain; in today’s disjointed, social and much more democratic media landscape, prospects can enter (and exit) the funnel at any level. “What’s more,” the HBR post argues, prospects “often jump stages, stay in a stage indefinitely, or move back and forth between them.”

Awareness, for example, may not come from the brand. Instead, it can come from a prospect’s family, friends or other social connections, as well as through his or her own research. In the course of that research, a prospect can encounter and act on a recommended product and click a link to purchase it. Just like that, prospect went from awareness to purchase, with little time (if any) for the phases between those two. What’s more, the same trend – the breaking down of the sales funnel – is as true for B2B brands as it is for B2C.

What’s a brand to do, then? Below are some key suggestions – culled from the HBR article and from our own experiences – for brands to better and more effectively navigate a world in which the sales funnel is being relegated to the sideline.

  1. Think circular instead of linear. We know the phrase “circular thinking” isn’t always viewed as a positive one, but it’s instructive in this changing landscape. Prospects don’t enter the funnel at the top and exit at the bottom; rather, they move around a more circular, ongoing process, entering and exiting at different points of their choosing.
  2. Think relationship instead of transaction. In the sales funnel, the purchase or transaction is often the end point. Instead, think of the process as developing, building and maintaining long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with customers. How can you continue to communicate and engage with them post-purchase? How can you empower them to become ambassadors? How easy do you make it for your audience to advocate for your brand or product?
  3. Think experience instead of purchase. Meaningful relationships are built through experiences, not purchases, after all. Your customers can interact with your brand in a number of non-purchase ways – events, social media, branded content and media, etc. Is the experience you’re creating consistent, positive and memorable? Are you building relationships?
  4. Think purchase at every phase of the process. Wait, you’re saying to yourself. Didn’t you just tell me to think experience instead of purchase? Yes, but, at the same time, it should be relatively quick, easy and painless for customers to jump straight to the purchase phase of the process any time they want. Do an audit and answer this question: How many clicks of a mouse would it take a prospect to purchase (or whatever your measurable equivalent may be) your product or service from any and all points of the process? This isn’t to say each phase should be a straightforward, hard sales pitch, of course; at the same time, you should always strive to make it quick and easy for them to move forward with purchase if and when they’re ready.

The most fundamental and important change to what we used to know as the sales funnel is that it is increasingly no longer a linear, subsequent process. Now, it rarely has an end or beginning. This presents new challenges to marketers, to be sure, but it also presents many new opportunities.