Virtual Meetings: Will the COVID-19 virus accelerate a trend?

One of the big repercussions of the Coronavirus scare has been to shift most companies into a world where significant numbers of their employees are working from home. Whereas working remotely might have been an occasional thing for many of these workers in the past, now it’s the daily reality.

What’s more, personal visits to customers and attendance at meetings or events have been severely curtailed.

This “new reality” may well be with us for the coming months – not merely weeks as some reporting has indicated. But more fundamentally, what does it mean for the long-term?

I think it’s very possible that we’re entering a new era of how companies work and interact with their customers that’s permanent more than it is temporary. The move towards working remotely had been advancing (slowly) over the years, but COVID-19 is the catalyst that will accelerate the trend.

Over the coming weeks, companies are going to become pretty adept at figuring out how to work successfully without the routine of in-person meetings. Moving even small meetings to virtual-only events is the short-term reality that’s going to turn into a long-term one.

When it comes to client service strategies, these new approaches will gain a secure foothold not just because they’re necessary in the current crisis, but because they’ll prove themselves to work well and to be more cost-efficient than the old ways of doing business. Along the same lines, professional conferences in every sector are being postponed or cancelled – or rolled into online-only events.  This means that “big news” about product launches, market trends and data reporting are going to be communicated in ways that don’t involve a “big meeting.”

Social media and paid media will likely play larger roles in broadcasting the major announcements that are usually reserved for the year’s biggest meeting events. Harnessing techniques like animation, infographics and recorded presentations will happen much more than in the past, in order to turn information that used to be shared “in real life” into compelling and engaging web content.

The same dynamics are in play for formerly in-person sales visits. The “forced isolation” of social distancing will necessitate presentations and product demos being done via online meetings during the coming weeks and months. Once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, in-person sales meetings at the customer’s place of business will return – but can we realistically expect that they will go back to the levels that they were before?

Likely not, as companies begin to realize that “we can do this” when it comes to conducting business effectively while communicating remotely. What may be lost in in-person meeting dynamics is more than made up for in the convenience and cost savings that “virtual” sales meetings can provide.

What do you think? Looking back, will we recognize the Coronavirus threat as the catalyst that changed the “business as usual” of how we conduct business meetings?  Or will today’s “new normal” have returned to the “old normal” of life before the pandemic?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

The New World of PR

Companies work to find their place in the changing ecosystem — some more effectively than others.

For those of us who have been active  in the marketing communications industry over the past few decades, there’s been a sea change in how the industry operates — not least in the realm of PR and media relations.

One of the underlying reasons for this change is the dramatic shift that’s happened in the field of journalism. Traditional media companies which have long relied on professional reporters and editorial contributors have been dealing with a range of existential threats.  Print circulation has sagged while audiences have fragmented over a plethora of digital content publishers — most of which offer news and information free of charge.

At the same time, publishers’ revenues from advertising have plummeted as the media inventory has expanded to encompass the new digital content publishers.  The bottom-line impact of these twin developments is that it has become much more difficult for traditional media companies to employ the same number of staff reporters; indeed, many publishers have shrunk their newsrooms while relying increasingly on independent contributors and freelancers to fill in the gaps.

But the situation gets even more complicated thanks to the evolution of digital media and the explosive growth of self-publishing platforms. The reality is that there’s a new class of authors who are increasingly publishing from their own platforms, without being involved with any of the major media outlets.

In such a world, the notion of PR departments simply keeping in close touch with a limited number of key journalists as the most effective way of gaining earned media coverage seems almost quaint.

And it gets even more problematic when considering how much easier it is for businesses to prepare and disseminate PR news. At their best, PR pitches rely on the same tools as marketing in general: profiling the audience; personalizing the news pitch, and so forth.

The problem is, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census, there are now more than six PR pros for every journalist. This means that more PR news releases than ever are hitting the inboxes of far fewer journalists and reporters.

Is it any wonder that PR news released by companies is so often being ignored?

According to a recent survey of ~1,000 journalists by PR Newswire, the following aspects of PR pitches are the most annoying to reporters and journalists:

  • Too much overt “marketing” in the pitch
  • Lack of relevant or useful content
  • Unclear or misleading subject lines on e-emails
  • Insufficient news detail

On the other hand, some aspects help in a PR pitch, including:

  • High-resolution photography
  • Video clips
  • Infographics

In today’s PR landscape, obtaining earned media is more difficult than ever. These days, not only do you need a great story to tell, you need to craft the perfect narrative. And even then, you might never get the news covered by a so-called “Tier 1” publication.

But missing out on Tier 1 coverage isn’t necessarily the kiss of death. Sometimes the lower tier represents the best targeted audience to receive news from companies. Moreover, by employing low-cost self-publishing tools, a decent social media strategy plus some basic search engine optimization, it’s actually possible to build an audience and garner as many well-targeted readers as those elusive Tier 1 pubs might be able to deliver.

In the new world of PR, the “tried and true” avenues to earned media coverage aren’t getting the job done.  But there are more routes than ever to get the news out instead of having to channel your efforts to go through the gate-keepers of yore.

Facial Recognition Faceoff

Facebook has been resisting outside efforts to rein in its “faceprints” facial recognition initiative – and mostly losing.

I’ve blogged before about the concerns many people have about facial recognition technology, and the troubling implications of the technology being misused in the wrong hands.

Facebook would claim to be the “right hands” rather than wrong ones when it comes to the database of “faceprints” it’s been compiling over the past decade or so. But its initiative has run afoul of an Illinois biometric privacy law passed in 2008.

The Illinois measure, which prohibits companies from collecting or storing people’s biometric data without their consent, is one of the strongest pieces of legislation of its kind in that it also allows individual consumers to sue for damages – to the tune of up to $5,000 per violation.

And that’s precisely what’s happened.  A class-action suite was filed in 2015 by a group of Illinois residents, alleging that Facebook has violated the Illinois privacy law through its photo-tagging function which draws on a trove of “faceprint” photos to recognize faces and suggest their names when they appear in photos uploaded by friends on Facebook.

Facebook has vigorously resisted efforts to rein in its faceprint initiative, arguing that any such lawsuits should be dismissed because users haven’t actually been injured by any alleged violations of the state law.

That stance has been rejected – first in U.S. district court and then in the court of appeals. Undaunted, Facebook appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which turned down the appeal in late January.

Rebuffed at all legal levels, Facebook has now decided to settle the suit for a reported $550 million, including payments of ~$200 each to claimants in the Illinois class-action suit.

Facebook has lost, but the whole notion of facial recognition technology could well be like playing a game of whack-a-mole. As it turns out, another firm has developed similar functionality and is busily selling facial recognition data to police departments across North America.  According to a recent investigative article publishing in The New York Times, a company called Clearview AI has mined billions of photos from Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms.  (Clearview is now being sued in Illinois for allegedly violating the same biometric privacy law that was at the center of the Facebook suit.)

And indeed, the efforts to rein in facial recognition activities may be a little too little, a little too late: According to a recent report from Business Insider, the faces of more than half of all adults in America have already been logged into police or government databases.

… Which brings us to a parallel response that appears to be gaining traction: figuring out ways to fool facial recognition software.  A number of entrepreneurs are developing intriguing methods to beat facial recognition software.  Among them are:

  • Clothing designers have begun to target weaknesses in the ability of facial recognition software to process overlapping or unusual shapes, as well as deciphering multiple similar images appearing in close proximity. One such example is a pair of goggles fitted with near-infrared LEDs that interfere with the ability to scan facial features.
  • Headscarves decorated with different faces “confuse” the software by overloading it with excessive amounts of data in the form of numerous facial features.
  • So-called “adversarial patches” – a graphic print that can be added to clothing – exploit the vulnerabilities in facial recognition scanning by making a person “virtually invisible for automatic surveillance cameras,” according to creators Simen Thys, Wiebe Van Ranst and Toon Goedemé.

Will the two-front attack on facial recognition technology from the legal as well as technology standpoint succeed in putting the facial recognition genie back in the bottle? It’s debatable.  But it’s certainly making things more of a challenge for the Facebooks and Clearviews of the world.

A Marketer’s Resolution for the New Year

Note: Those of you who are regular readers of my marketing and culture blog have noticed that it “went dark” for a period of time over the past month or so.  The twin developments of health issues plus a death in the family (my mother, at the age of 96-and-a-half years), meant that I needed to be focused on recuperation and also estate matters.  But I’m back … and hopefully back to my regular schedule of posting.

For my final blog post of 2019, it comes in the form of a resolution for us marketers. It’s to finally acknowledge how little “upside potential” there actually is for social media to build or maintain a brand presence … and instead to place renewed focus on tactics that’ll actually deliver a more measurable ROI.

Most of my business clients have put a degree of effort into social media over the years – some with more focus and fortitude than others. But whether the campaigns have been “full speed ahead” or only half-hearted, invariably the end-result seems to be the same:  a sales needle that hardly moves, if at all.

Moreover, social media takes a deceptively significant amount of effort for that little bit of payoff. Companies that put in the effort devote human capital and in some cases substantive dollar resources to tap outside support, but frequently the results aren’t any more impactful than for our clients who merrily go on ignoring social medial platforms, year after year.  At least when looking at bottom-line sales.

Plus, in our highly sensitized world, these days it seems that when social media actually has an impact, more often than not it’s a negative one.  Too often it’s the sorry end-result of some sort of faux pas where even the best-laid plans for departmental or legal review aren’t carried out fully and the brand gets into trouble. (Sometimes that happens even with all of the checks and balances in place and being carried out religiously.)

So for 2020, we marketers could well be better off acknowledging how thin the promise of social media actually is.  We should ignore the siren calls of “likes” and “engagement” and stop chasing the phantom pot of gold at the end of the phantom rainbow. Chances are, your company’s bottom line will look just as strong, even as you focus more of your time and budget on marketing activities that’ll actually make a positive difference.

What are your thoughts on social media for brands? Please share them with other readers here.

Like synthetic fabrics, synthetic media has its good and bad attributes.

Decades ago, people had a choice of cloth fibers like cotton, wool and silk. Each of these natural cloths had positive attributes … as well as negative ones, too.

Cotton is comfortable to wear, but wrinkles when washed. Wool is great for the cold weather months, but needs to be dry-cleaned.  Too, moths and other insects love to burrow their way through woolen clothing, making many an item made from wool ready for the trash far too soon.

Silk? It has all the detriments of cotton and wool without any of the positives — except that it looks rich and expensive if one wishes to put on airs or otherwise “make a statement.”

Beginning in the 1940s, polyesters and other synthetic fibers were introduced, giving rise to all sorts of new clothing items that touted a variety of positive attributes: They washed up fine, didn’t need ironing, and kept their shape over time.

Never mind the fact that the clothing didn’t breathe, and made more than a few people stink to the heavens after wearing a synthetic cloth shirt for barely an hour on a hot summer day.

Along these same lines, today we have synthetic media. It’s essentially how people and machines are collaborating to create media that is algorithmically created (or modified).

In its earliest incarnations, synthetic media was a blend of “real” and “faux” components. Think of a newscast with your favorite, very real anchor person … but the background, screens and graphics are computer-generated.

But things have gone much further than that in recent times. Text, photography and videos are being created by software with such precision and seeming authenticity that it’s nearly impossible to determine what content is “real” versus what has been “synthesized.”

On the plus side, content can be automatically translated and delivered in multiple languages to different audiences spanning the world, bringing more news and information to more people simultaneously. But what if the avatar (host) could be customized to be more “familiar” to different audiences — and therefore more engaging and believable to them?

There’s a flipside to all of this innovation. So-called “deepfakes” (a recent term that took no time at all to be added to the major dictionary databases) harness digital technology to superimpose faces onto video clips in ways that are so realistic, they appear to be totally authentic.

Considering the advances in the technology, one can only imagine the plethora of “news” items that will be unleashed into cyberspace and on social media platforms in the coming months and years. Most likely, they’ll have the effect of making more than a few people suspicious of all news and information — regardless of the source.

Which brings us back to synthetic fabrics. They’re with us and always will be; there’s no turning back from them.  But people have learned how to use them for what makes sense, and eschew the rest.  We need to figure out how to do the same with synthetic media.

LinkedIn’s Weak Link

On balance, most people would agree that the LinkedIn social media platform has been a positive development in the field of business. Until LinkedIn came along, often it was quite challenging to make and nurture connections with like-minded industry or professional colleagues, or to find relevant contacts deep within corporations or other organizations.

I’m old enough to remember the “bad old days” of fruitless searches through the Corporate Yellow Book, Hoover’s and Dun & Bradstreet mercantile listings to try to find good company contacts. Often the information was far too “upper-level,” out-of-date, or simply wrong.  Industry, state and regional directory listings were even worse.

Invariably, any data ferreted out needed to be vetted through phone calls made to beleaguered front-office receptionists who were understandably disinclined to spend much time being helpful.

Of course, as with Wikipedia all LinkedIn “data” is submitted information, and subject to varying degrees of accuracy. As well, the data are comprehensive and accurate only to the degree that each LinkedIn member keeps his or her employment and related information current and complete.

But as a crowd-sourcing database of information – and often with “deep-dive” data on members available to view – LinkedIn is miles ahead of where we were before.

That being said, there is one negative aspect about LinkedIn that seems to have become more pronounced over time — and that’s the burgeoning volume of LinkedIn connection requests that are happening.

Speaking for myself, I’ve spent an entire career nurturing my business relationships. That this has resulted in being one of the LinkedIn members who are in the “500+ connections” club speaks to a lifetime of establishing “real” connections with “real” people – not mindlessly sending out connection solicitations to just anyone.

But that’s what’s happening with many of the incoming requests-to-connect on LinkedIn. These days, I’m receiving requests daily from people I do not know personally and have never even heard of before.

These are the folks who take advantage of LinkedIn’s higher cost”premium membership” programs to gain access to the more detailed information contained in member profiles that is normally off-limits to all except first-degree connections.

In what ways are these people actually interested in connecting with me?  Are they simply sending out a rash of “spray-and-pray” requests in the hopes of getting a nibble … or perhaps making an effort to build their own network and look more like an “authority” in their line of work?

When I click through to view the profiles of those people requesting to connect, it turns out that most them are in fields that relate to my line of work, however tangentially. Likely they’ve identified my name based on shared professional organizations and vocational interests.

But their reasons for requesting to connect — if they even bother to give one — are so generic (or so lame) as to be laughable.

Early on, I did a bit of “empirical” research to see how a few of these connections might actually evolve after I accepted their request to connect. Big mistake, that was.  Recently, freelance copywriter extraordinaire Ed Gandia described something very similar about his own personal LinkedIn experience, characterizing the typical follow-up communiqué from a new LinkedIn connection as “the business equivalent of a marriage proposal” – to wit:

“I’d like to get on the phone with you about [marrying me/having kids/opening a joint bank account]. Here are three times I’m available to talk.  I’m so excited to hear what you can offer me as [my new husband].”

If ever we needed reminding about how not to engage in business development solicitations, these sorry LinkedIn communications are it.

The bright promise of LinkedIn is the ability to identify people with whom we can potentially work or collaborate.  In that regard, the platform can be very valuable.  It’s just too bad that so many people are now using it for ill-conceived (or perhaps desperate?) shotgun attempts to sell themselves, their products or their services.

It won’t work. Communications technology may have evolved but some fundamental things never change.  At the top of the list:  No one wants to be pestered by unsolicited pitches for products, consulting services, employment opportunities and the like.  Not then, not now, not ever.

Hopefully, LinkedIn can calibrate its business practices to ensure that the benefits of interacting with the social platform always outweigh the detriments. We all recognize that this is one way LinkedIn can monetize the data that’s valuable housed on its platform.  But LinkedIn needs to get this just right, lest they turn off their most consequential members – or worse, drive them away.