Brand PR in the era of social media: Much ado about … what?

These days, brands often get caught up in a social media whirlwind whenever they might stumble. Whatever fallout there is can be magnified exponentially thanks to the reach of social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

When a “brand fail” becomes a topic of conversation in the media echo chamber, it can seem almost as though the wheels are coming off completely. But is that really the case?

Consider the past few weeks, during which time two airlines (United and American) and one consumer product (Pepsi) have come under fire in the social media sphere (and in other media as well) for alleged bad behavior.

In the case of United and American, it’s about the manhandling of air travelers and whether air carriers are contributing to the stress – and the potential dangers – of flying.

In the case of Pepsi, it’s about airing an allegedly controversial ad featuring Kendall Jenner at a nondescript urban protest, and whether the ad trivializes the virtues of protest movements in cities and on college campuses.

What exactly have we seen in these cases?  There’s been the predictable flurry of activity on social media, communicating strong opinions and even outrage.

United Airlines was mentioned nearly 3 million times on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram just on April 10th and 11th.  Reaction on social media over the Pepsi ad was similarly damning, if not at the same level of activity.

And now the outrage has started for American Airlines over the “strollergate” incident this past weekend.

But when you consider what the purpose of a brand actually is – to sell products and services to customers – what’s really happening to brand reputation?

A good proxy is the share price of the brands in question. United Airlines’ share price took a major hit the week the “draggergate” news and cellphone videos were broadcast, but it’s been climbing back ever since.  Today, United’s share price looks nearly the same as before the passenger incident came to light.

In the case of Pepsi, company shares are up more than 7% so far in 2017, making it a notably robust performer in the market. Moreover, a recent Morning Consult poll found that over 50% of the survey respondents had a more favorable opinion of the Pepsi brand as a result of the Kendall Jenner commercial.

That is correct:  The Pepsi commercial was viewed positively by far more people than the ones who complained (loudly) about it on social media.

What these developments show is that while a PR crisis isn’t a good thing for a brand’s reputation, social fervor doesn’t necessarily equate with brand desertion or other negative changes in consumer behavior.

Instead, it seems that the kind of “brand fails” causing the most lasting damage are ones that strike at the heart of consumers’ own individual self-interest.

Chipotle is a good example, wherein the fundamental fear of getting sick from eating Chipotle’s food has kept many people away from the chain restaurant’s stores for more than a year now.

One can certainly understand how fears about being dragged off of airplanes might influence a decision to select some other air carrier besides United – although it’s equally easy to understand how price-shopping in an elastic market like air travel could actually result in more people flying United rather than less, if the airline adjusts its fares to be more the more economical choice.

My sense is, that’s happening already.

And in the case of Pepsi, the Jenner ad is the biggest nothing-burger to come down the pike in a good while.  The outrage squad is likely made up of people who didn’t drink Pepsi products to begin with.

Still, as an open forum, social media is important for brands to embrace to speak directly to customers, as well as to learn more about what consumers want and need through their social likes, dislikes and desires.

But the notion of #BrandFails? As often as not, it’s #MuchAdoAboutNothing.

Online user reviews: People trust their own motives for posting … but not others’.

user reviewsOne of the most important uses of the web today is for people to seek out user reviews of products and services before they buy.

Research shows that people place a high value on these user reviews, and they are more likely to influence purchase decisions than brand advertising and other forms of promotion.

The famous 90-9-1 rule — of every 100 people, 1 creates content, 9 respond to created content and 90 simply are just lurkers — may no longer be accurate.  But even if the rule still holds, that still means quite a few people are engaging in the practice of posting customer reviews and comments.

For most people who post reviews, their reasons for doing so are positive, if the results from a recent YouGov survey of U.S. consumers are any guide.  The research was conducted in November 2014 among American respondents age 18 or older.

When asked why they post consumer reviews online, the survey respondents cited the following reasons:

  • To help other people make better purchase decisions: ~62% cited as a reason why they post
  • It’s polite to leave feedback: ~35% of respondents cited
  • It’s a way to share a positive experience: ~27%
  • To make sure good vendors get more business: ~25%
  • To warn others about a bad experience: ~13%
  • To expose bad vendors: ~12%

Interestingly, the older the age of reviewers, the more likely it is that they upload reviews for the reasons listed above:  Respondents age 55 or older cited all but one of the six reasons in greater percentages than the average for all age groups.

What about the flip side of the equation?  Do those who post feel that others are posting reviews for the same reason?

thumbs up and downThat’s where the picture gets a bit murkier.  It appears that those who post do so for positive reasons … but they don’t necessarily think others are posting for similarly positive purposes.

In fact, about two-thirds of the survey respondents felt that some reviews are written by people who haven’t actually purchased the product or service.

A large portion — 80% — think that businesses write positive online review about themselves.

And nearly 70% believe that businesses post negative feedback about competitors’ products.

So it’s interesting:  People see themselves participating in online ratings and reviews for the right reasons, yet they suspect that other posters may not be playing fairly — or maybe even gaming the system.

It’s an indication that while user reviews are welcomed in practice, there are also nagging doubts about the veracity of what people are reading.

Still, surveys find that many consumers cast those doubts to the side, and continue to read user reviews and be influenced by them.

What’s the Latest in Content Creation for B-to-B Marketers?

Content creationThere’s an interesting new study just published that gives us interesting clues about what B-to-B marketers are doing in content creation.

The B2B Content Marketing: 2012 Benchmarks, Budgets & Trends study is a joint research effort of the Content Marketing Institute and marketing information resources firm MarketingProfs. The survey found that nine out of ten B-to-B marketers are using some form of content marketing activities to achieve their business goals.

[For this survey, content marketing (also known as custom publishing or branded content) is defined as “the creation and distribution of educational and/or compelling content in multiple formats to attract and/or retain customers.”]

The research found that usage of several content tactics is now quite widespread:

 News articles: ~79% of respondents are using
 Social media (excluding blogs): ~74%
 Blogs: ~65%
 e-Newsletters: ~63%
 Case studies: ~58%
 In-person events: ~56%
 Videos: ~52%
 White papers: ~51%
 Webinars or webcasts: ~46%

When queried as to how effective marketers believe these tactics to be, a combination of traditional and “new” ones were cited with high effectiveness scores:

 In-person events: ~78% view as an “effective” tactic
 Case studies: ~70
 Webinars or webcasts: ~70%
 e-Newsletters: ~60%
 White papers: ~60%
 Blogs: ~58%
 Web microsites: ~56%
 Articles: ~51%
 Social media: ~51%
 Videos: ~51%

The survey also investigated how content tactics are being measured for success. Tracking web traffic stats is the most popular measurement tool:

 Web traffic: ~58% use to measure success
 Sales lead quality: ~49% use
 Direct sales figures: ~41% use
 Sales lead quantity: ~41% use
 Qualitative feedback from customers: ~40% use
 Search engine rankings: ~40% use
 Inbound weblinks: ~30% use

And what is the biggest challenge these marketers see in content creation? It’s the age-old problem of coming up with interesting topics to write about.

More than four in ten respondents cited “producing the kind of content that engages prospects and customers” as their biggest challenge.

Some of the comments heard from survey respondents on this topic sound all-too-familiar:

 “Finding people within my organization to contribute their expertise … nobody outside of marketing seems to see the value in sharing our expertise with the market via content.”

 “Having the discipline and being able to assign sufficient resources to create and manage the right content for the target audience, in a sustainable manner.”

 “The ideas are all there; it’s just a matter of finding time to create and write copy.”

 “Management patience: Management needs to understand that in today’s B-to-B environment, it takes time to engage prospects.”

What about your situation? Are your content management issues the same ones as reported in this study … or are you facing different challenges?

PR Firms at Loggerheads with Bloggerheads

PR mistakes with bloggersTime was, we could get a chuckle out of television commercials where unsuspecting consumers were surprised to find out that the restaurant coffee was really Folgers®, or the day spa’s skin moisturizer treatment for their hands was actually Palmolive® dish detergent.

There was something rather endearing about those consumer reactions – and they were uniformly positive ones as well.

But to show how far removed we are from those halcyon days, consider this recent attempt to pull a fast one on unsuspecting dinner guests at a “faux” restaurant in Midtown Manhattan: Cooked up by the Ketchum public relations unit of Omnicom Group for its client, ConAgra Foods, New York-based food bloggers and “mommy” bloggers were invited to dine at “Sotto Terra,” an underground restaurant supposedly run by Chef George Duran of TLC’s Ultimate Cake Off cable program.

But Sotto Terra, far from being the “intimate Italian restaurant” of the invitation, was nothing more than an elaborate set-up – hidden cameras and all – to get bloggers to sample ConAgra’s newest offerings in the Marie Callender’s line of frozen entrees and desserts … and presumably to extol the virtues of the cuisine.

In fact, no such restaurant even exists. Rather, it was all a staged scene in a Greenwich Village brownstone. The invitation promised a “delicious four-course meal” accompanied by Chef Duran’s “one-of-a-kind sangria” … along with a talk by famed food industry expert Phil Lempert on new taste trends in food.

The invitation also promised a “special surprise” for those who attended the dinner on one of five evenings.

The special surprise, of course, was revealing the actual provenance of the food items being served. “The twist at the end was not dissimilar to what brands like Pizza Hut and Domino’s have done in the recent past, with success,” noted Stephanie Moritz, a public relations flack at ConAgra.

The plan was to use the video footage captured at the dinners for promotional clips on ConAgra’s website and on YouTube … as well as for the bloggers who attended to generate cyber-buzz about being pleasantly surprised at the revelation.

But this is 2011, not 1981 or 1991. And bloggers are also quite different from the average consumer. Ketchum and ConAgra apparently forgot about the “90-9-1 rule” of online content: 1% create content … 9% comment on that content … and 90% simply lurk.

Not only are bloggers part of the 1%, they take their role seriously and certainly don’t appreciate being fooled. So instead of the food taking center stage, the event itself became the topic of (uniformly negative) conversation on the blogs. A few examples:

 “We discussed with the group the sad state of chemical-filled foods. And yet, you still fed me the exact thing I said I did not want to eat.” (Lon Binder, FoodMayhem Blog)

 “[I] pointed out that the reason I ate organic, fresh and good food was because my calories are very precious to me, so I want to use them wisely. Yet they were serving us a frozen meal, loaded with sodium. I’m NOT their target consumer, and they were totally off by thinking I would buy or promote their highly processed frozen goods after tricking me to taste it.” (Cindy Zhou, Chubby Chinese Girl Blog)

 “Our entire meal was a SHAM! We were unwitting participants in a bait-and-switch for Marie Callender’s new frozen three-cheese lasagna and there were cameras watching our reactions.” (Suzanne Chan, Mom Confessionals Blog)

I loved reading the PR personnel’s “spin” of the events the way they transpired: “Once we sensed it was not meeting attendees’ expectations, that’s where we stopped, we listened and we adjusted,” Stephanie Moritz remarked.

… By which she means the remaining dinner evenings were canceled.

Looking back is 20/20 hindsight, of course. But it does seem like most PR professionals could have seen this negative reaction coming from a mile away. PR agencies exist to provide not only publicity for their clients, but also counsel. Sure, the event sounds like a fun lark with a bit of a twist – and I can just picture the breathlessly animated PR brainstorming session at Ketchum that produced this idea.

But is duping bloggers and making them out to be fools the correct tactic? … Especially considering that their megaphone, augmented by the viral nature of social media, is much more effective and far-reaching than ConAgra’s corporate website ever could hope to be.

When the Public Relations Society of America was contacted by the New York Times for comment, Deborah Silverman, chairperson of the PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, responded by stating that the Ketchum/ConAgra PR stunt was “unfortunate” and “not quite where they should be in terms of honesty.”

Ya think?

Outdoor advertising that’s really “out” there.

Adzookie House
Adding a lot of class to the neighborhood: Adzookie puts the "outré" in outdoor advertising.
There’s an interesting story that’s been swirling around the past few days about out-of-home advertising. Evidently, mobile ad network firm Adzookie is on the prowl for using someone’s house as an advertising placard.

As in “the entire house.” Or nearly all of it; Adzookie plans to place its logo, marketing messages and social media icons along with highly visible hues on every inch of surface save the rooftop, windows and awnings.

And what’s in it for the homeowner? Adzookie is claiming it will pay the mortgage on each house it selects for the honors.

Already, well over 1,000 applications from property owners have been received. The vast majority involve houses, but there are also restaurants, other businesses, and even a house of worship that have been submitted. You can click over to Adzookie’s Facebook page to view many of the pictures and pitches received.

How will Adzookie make its decision? Key, of course, will be traffic density; homes in sleepy sub-divisions or cul-de-sacs won’t have much of a chance. Then there’s also the issue of restrictive homeowner associations or the howls of protestation over “eye pollution” from nearby neighbors. That’ll knock quite a few more out of contention.

But here’s another tidbit that may turn out to be a deal-breaker for most of the remaining applications: CNNMoney magazine is reporting that Adzookie’s budget for the entire program is only ~$100,000 … and that includes the cost of painting the home(s) in question.

Even in this depressed real estate market, there aren’t too many houses that have a mortgage that low – unless you’re talking about a home in the City of Detroit, perhaps.

This capricious initiative proves yet again that in today’s world of advertising and promotion, pretty much anything goes. And if the idea is quirky enough, it’ll generate publicity in and of itself – thereby helping to bring about the desired awareness and interest even before the first slaps of the paintbrush ever hit the house.

Good going, Adzookie.

McCormick Place Loses its Luster

Has all the grumbling about Chicago’s vaunted McCormick Place as America’s premier tradeshow venue finally reached critical mass?

For years, corporate exhibitors have groused about government-controlled, money-losing McCormick Place. Stories abound of exhibitors being forced to spend hundreds of dollars for services as mundane as plugging in a piece of machinery, or being charged $1,000 to hang a sign from the ceiling, because of onerous union rules governing “who does this” and “who can’t do that.” It’s been a constant refrain of complaining I’ve heard at every tradeshow I’ve attended at McCormick Place, dating back some 20 years.

Despite all of the criticism about McCormick Place’s high costs and lack of user-friendly service, it remains the largest convention complex in America, with over 2.5 million square feet of exhibit space. But attendance has been declining pretty dramatically, from ~3.0 million in 2001 to ~2.3 million in 2008. While the figures haven’t been released yet for 2009, it’s widely expected that show traffic will be reported as down another 20%.

As the current economic recession has put the most severe strains yet on the tradeshow business, it seems that a rebellion against McCormick Place is in now full swing. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “a gradual drop-off in business … has turned into a rout as a string of high-profile shows have pulled out.” The deserters include a triennial plastics show (~75.000 attendees), as well as the Healthcare Information & Management Systems Society’s annual conference (~27,500 attendees).

But isn’t tradeshow attendance off in other convention centers as well? Well … yes. But clearly not as much. In truth, tradeshow attendance has been under pressure at a “macro” level ever since 9/11, and an important reason beyond the issue of terrorism is technological innovation and the ability for people to interact through video-conferencing and for companies to demo their equipment and services via the Internet and other forms of digital communication.

Tradeshows were once the only way to gather a community together, but now there are other options. One school of thought holds that large tradeshows are now less effective than small, targeted conferences that provide heightened ability for attendees to interact with one another on a more intimate basis. Some events no longer charge attendees … but they make sure to “vet” them carefully to ensure that the show sponsors who are underwriting the costs are reaching prospects with important degrees of influence or buying authority.

On top of these “macro” trends, the current economic downturn just makes McCormick Place look more and more like a loser when it comes to the tradeshow game. Compared to Chicago’s three most significant competing tradeshow locales – Atlanta, Las Vegas and Orlando – the cost of many items from electricians (union labor) to foodservice (greasy spoon-quality coffee at Starbucks® prices) to hotel accommodations (room fees and surtaxes that won’t quit) ranges two times to eight times higher in Chicago. And in today’s business climate when every cost is scrutinized closely, none of this looks very cost-effective to the corporate bean-counters.

True, Chicago is more centrally located for travel from both coasts: Who wants to take a five hour flight from New York to Las Vegas or from California to Orlando to attend a meeting?

[On the other hand, no one can honestly say that the weather in Chicago is preferable to sunny Florida or Nevada!]

So it would seem that Chicago’s worthy tradeshow competitors have achieved the upper hand now. I just returned from two national shows this past week – the International Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Expo and the International Poultry Expo. Where were they held? Orlando and Atlanta – the same cities which are attracting McCormick Place’s erstwhile customers.