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.

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.

How the psychology of color “colors” the effectiveness of websites.

As one of the five senses, sight is usually mentioned first. And little wonder, if we consider what an integral part of our life’s experience is based on what we see.

Color is a huge part of that — and it goes beyond “sight” as well. We use color not only to pinpoint a place on the visible spectrum, but also to describe intangible factors such as emotions and character traits.

Ever wonder why people talk about “orchestral color”? This seeming contradiction in terms is actually one of the fundamental ways we can “see” music in our minds as well as hear it in our ears. The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin went so far as to associate individual colors on the visual spectrum with specific musical chords; the colors themselves are written into the score for his last orchestral piece, his Fifth Symphony (Prometheus: The Poem of Fire), composed in 1910.

Alexander Scriabin

Recognizing the importance of color and its impact on how humans think and behave, marketers and branding specialists have long made use of the power of color in advertising and design. This continues today in the digital world of websites and other electronic media, where the choice of colors has measurable impact on website engagement and conversions.

Marketing and design specialist Raj Vardhman has compiled a number of interesting facts about the “psychology of color” and its impact on viewer engagement:

  • It takes approximately 90 seconds for a viewer to make a quick product assessment — and two-thirds of this judgment is based on color.
  • Color is a key reason for selecting a particular product. For instance, two-thirds of shoppers won’t purchase a large appliance if it isn’t available in their preferred color.
  • The classic notion of “pink for girls” and “blue for boys” turns out to be generally true (despite the penchant for choosing yellow when a family doesn’t want to “channel” their newborn towards a particular gender identity). Bold colors or shades of blue, black and darker green are preferred by most men, whereas more women prefer soft colors or tints of purple, pink, rose and lighter green.

Furthermore, attitudinal studies show that main color groups convey certain characteristics:

  • Red embodies life, excitement and boldness. It’s used often in iconic consumer brands, but also to announce clearance sales.
  • Blue telegraphs productivity, tranquility and trust. Is it any wonder that blue colors are the hands-down favorite among commercial/industrial product brands?
  • Green evokes growth, nature and harmony. Its use has been growing in recent decades.
  • Yellow personifies joy, intellect and energy. It’s employed by brands to evoke cheerful, sunny feelings.
  • Purple suggests wealth and royalty. It’s no accident that “royal purple” has been with us since Renaissance times.
  • Black projects authority, power and elegance. Not surprisingly, it’s the most popular choice for marketing luxury products. But it can be highly effective in promoting technology products as well.
  • White and silver communicate perfection and pristine clarity. These colors are also popular with technology products, but are used very often in healthcare-related products and services.

These time-honored color characteristics are very much in play in the world of websites. Such aspects are a factor in nine out of ten visitors to a website — half of whom report that they won’t return to a website based on the site’s lack of aesthetics, not just its functionality.

As well, the colors of call-to-action buttons are significant, as studies show that red, orange and green CTA buttons are the best ones for conversions (but only if they stand out from the rest of the content on the screen).

More fundamentally, what this means for website designers is that despite the desire to be “different” or “distinct” from others in the marketplace, many attitudes about color are so fundamental, that to fly in the face of them could well be a risky endeavor.

Company e-newsletters: Much ado about … what? (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of a topic I wrote about several days ago. That column focused on the (lack of) reader engagement with customer e-newsletters and what may be the root causes of it.

This follow-up post focuses on what marketers can do to improve their newsletters’ worth to readers. It boils down to addressing four main issues:

Too much e-newsletter content is “full of it” – People don’t want to read about how great the company is or other navel gazing-type content that’s completely company-focused.  Instead, offer soft-sell (or no-sell) content that’s truly of value.  Simply ask yourself, “If I weren’t an employee of this company, would I care at all about this topic?”  This exercise applies equally to B2B and B2C newsletters.

Tired writing – There’s nothing more tiresome than a newsletter article that’s filled with corporate-speak or comes across as a patchwork of language from multiple sources.  But this happens all too often.  Sometimes it’s because the writer is overworked and hasn’t had sufficient time to source the article and create a compelling narrative.  Perhaps the author is a non-writer.  Often, it’s simply that the people inside the company love how the copy reads – tin ear or not.  Regardless of the topic of your story, newsletter copy should have personality, and it needs to move.  Otherwise, it’s your reader who’s going to move on.

Gaining an audience – Too many newsletters are playing to an empty house, whether it’s because of an opt-in audience that doesn’t care about you anymore, or from a total lack of visibility in search results or on social media.  Build circulation through in-house databases, optimizing copy to draw in new readers via SEO, and promoting article content through social posts.  Again, these prescriptions work for both consumer and business marketing, although the individual tactics may differ somewhat.

Neglect – It happens way too often:  An e-newsletter initiative begins with great fanfare, but it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off.  What starts out as a bi-weekly turns into a monthly or a quarterly, with gaps in between.  Eventually the only thing “regular” about it is its irregularity.  It’s surprising how many corporate websites show links to archived newsletters all the way up to 2016 or 2017 — but then nothing more recent than that.  And we all know what that means …

Wrapping it all up, it’s worth asking this basic question every once in a while: “Is our newsletter any good?” The answer should be unmistakable — if you read your content with a completely open mind.

If you’re involved in your company’s e-newsletter initiatives, do you have any additional insights about what makes for a successful program? Please share them with other readers here.

 

Do consumers really understand “native advertising” labeling?

There’s no question that “native advertising” – paid editorial content – has become a popular “go-to” marketing tactic. After all, it’s based on the time-tested notion that people don’t like advertising, and they’re more likely to pay attention to information that looks more like a news article than an ad.

Back in the days of print-only media, paid editorial placements were often labeled as “advertorials.” But these days we’re seeing a plethora of ways to label them – whether identified as “sponsored content,” “paid posts,” or using some kind of lead-in descriptor such as “presented by …”

Behind all of the verbal gymnastics is the notion that people may not easily distinguish native advertising from true editorial if the identification can be kept somewhat euphemistic. At the same time, the verbal “sleight of hand” raises concerns about the obfuscation that seems to be going on.

These dynamics have been tested. One such test, conducted several years ago by ad tech company TripleLift, used biometric eye-tracking to see how people would view the same piece of native advertising, that carries different disclosure labeling.

The results were revealing. Here are the percentages of participants who saw each ad, based on how the content was labeled:

  • Presented by” labeling: ~39% saw the content
  • “Sponsored by” labeling: ~29%
  • “Promoted by” labeling: ~26%
  • “Brought to you by” labeling: ~24%
  • “Advertisement” labeling: ~23%

Notice that the content that was labeled “advertisement” was noticed the least often. This provides yet more confirmation that people ignore ads.  When advertisers used softer/fuzzier terms like “presented by” and “sponsored by,” they achieved a bigger lift in the content being noticed.

It comes as little surprise that those same “presented by” and “sponsored by” labels are also the most potentially confusing to people regarding whether the item is paid content. And when people find out the truth, they tend to feel deceived.

Members of the Association of National Advertisers look at it the same way. In an ANA survey of its members conducted several years ago, two-thirds of the respondents agreed that there should be “clear disclosure” of native ads – even if there’s a lack of consensus regarding who should be responsible for the labeling or what constitutes “clear” disclosure.

Asked which labeling describes native ad disclosure “very well,” here’s what the ANA survey found:

  • “Advertisement”: 62% say this labeling describes native ad placements “very well”
  • “Paid content”: 37%
  • “Paid posts”: 34%
  • “Sponsored by”: 31%
  • “Native advertising”: 12%
  • “Presented by”: 11%
  • “Promoted by”: 11%
  • “Branded content”: 8%
  • “Featured partner”: 8%

Considering that the findings are all over the map, it would be nice if a universal method of disclosure could be devised. But the language that’s agreed upon shouldn’t scare away readers, since in so many cases native advertising isn’t directly pitching a product or service.  Labeling such content “advertising” would be as much of a misnomer as failing to divulge the company paying for the placement.

My personal preference for adopting consistent labeling language among the options above would be “Sponsored by …”  What’s yours?

Roads to … nowhere?

Google Maps admits its business listings are riddled with errors and outright fraudulent entries.

The news reports hit fast and furious this week when the media got wind of the millions upon millions of “faux” business listings on Google Maps, thanks to a new Wall Street Journal exposé.

It’s true that there are a ton of map listings displayed by Google on search engine results pages, but the latest estimates are that there are more than 11 million falsely listed businesses that pop up on Google searches on any given business day.

That number may seem eyebrow-raising, but it’s hardly “new news.” Recall the reports that date as far back as a half-decade — to wit:

  • In 2014, cyber-security expert Bryan Seely showed how easy it was to use the Internet’s open architecture to record telephone conversations and create fraudulent Google Maps listings and locations.
  • In 2017, Google released a report titled Pinning Down Abuse on Google Maps, wherein it was estimated that one in ten fake listings belonged to actual real-live businesses such as restaurants and motels, but that nefarious third-parties had claimed ownership of them. Why do this? So that the unscrupulous bad-actors could deceive the targeted businesses into paying search referral fees.

Google is owning up to its continuing challenges, this week issuing a statement as follows:

“We understand the concerns of those people and businesses impacted by local business scammers, and back in 2017 we announced the progress we’d made. There was still work to be done then, and there’s still work to be done now.  We have an entire team dedicated to addressing these issues and taking constant action to remove profiles that violate our policies.”

But is “constant action” enough? Certain business trades are so riddled with fake listings, it’s probably best to steer clear of them altogether.  Electricians, plumbers and other contractors are particularly sketchy categories, where roughly 40% of Google Maps listings are estimated to be fraudulent entries.

The Wall Street Journal‘s recent exposé, published on June 24th, reported on a search its researchers conducted for plumbers in New York City.  Of the top 20 Google search results returned, only two actually exist where they’re reported to be located and accept customers at the addresses listed.  That’s pretty awful performance even if you’re grading on a curve.

A measure of progress has been made; Google reports that in 2018 it removed some 3 million fake business listings. But that still leaves another 11 million of them out there, silently mocking …

Marketing AI and Machine Learning Come Into Better Focus

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are two phrases that have become regular currency in the marketing world over the past several years. It isn’t hard to figure out why, as both AI and machine learning have the potential to help marketers make sense of the ever-increasing volume (and complexity) of raw data that’s become available in increasing amounts, thanks to the digitization of “everything.”

Some people use the two terms interchangeably, but that isn’t exactly right. According to Thorin McGee, director of content at Fast Capital 360, the distinction is subtle yet significant:

  • AI is when you develop an algorithm that allows a computer to “think” for you towards achieving a goal.
  • Machine learning is when you let a computer create an algorithm to find ways to meet the goals you give it, based on large pools of data.

Put the two together, and you have the ability to gain some really deep insights into what your data is actually telling you, thereby improving decision-making success.

On the data front, this great potential is tempered by some significant challenges. Christopher Penn, chief innovation officer of marketing data and analytics consulting firm Trust Insights, characterizes them as the “5 V’s” of data:

  1. Volume — There’s so darned much of it.
  2. Variety — More kinds of data are being churned out.
  3. Velocity — Data is coming at us faster than ever.
  4. Veracity — If data isn’t verified, it can do more harm than good.
  5. Value — In raw form, data isn’t particularly useful. Like oil, data needs to be refined to be of value.

If getting your arms around data seems like trying to hug a stream of water, you aren’t alone in thinking that. Many companies are pretty adept at using data to identify what happened — and maybe even to diagnose problems and why they happened.  But it’s less easy to predict what will happen based on data … and even harder to use data to determine with confidence what should happen.

The biggest challenge — but also the one with the biggest potential payoff — is tapping machine learning to process and use data in forging future business as you wish it to be.

To date, very few companies have come all that close to becoming AI-powered enterprises. But it’s where we’re headed in the coming decade.  It represents one of the biggest opportunities for differentiating one company from another.  But it will require a disciplined and concerted effort:  talent acquisition (developers and data scientists), tapping outside vendors, along with taking available open-source code and building upon that to implement the appropriate marketing technologies.

Oh, and committing to a multi-year initiative and budget even after all of those other pieces are in place.

Surveying the current landscape, are there particular entities that you see as on the leading edge in applying AI and machine learning to their marketing endeavors? Please share your observations with other readers.