Category Archives: Customer Engagement

Corporate Journalism in the Public Sector

I’ve written from time to time about corporate journalism – the practice of applying traditional journalistic skills (investigating, interviewing, writing, editing) to create more authentic marketing communications, either for internal or external use. There are many flavors of corporate journalism; it can even be found in the in the public sector.

Last week the NY Times reported on a town in Vermont called Starksboro, whose leaders were looking to find a better way to get input from residents on upcoming revisions to the town plan. Most towns convene a series of planning committee meetings that at best a handful of residents attend (usually to complain about something). Starksboro took a different tack: it commissioned students at nearby Middlebury College to interview residents about their vision for the town’s future.

The concept is simple: talk to people about what they do and what they care about, transcribe the interviews, and look for common themes. From the article:

“The key is to project beyond immediate controversies over applications for subdivisions and to say, ‘Let’s envision the future that we would love to have,’ ” said Prof. John Elder of Middlebury, “at which point there is considerable agreement.”

The students … have spent the semester attending town dinners, exploring farms and forest, and visiting dozens of homes.

The objective in Starksboro is to develop a much more accurate picture of the community:

In their work, the students have seen certain themes emerge: Starksboro residents raise their children to leave. Few go to town meetings or interact with people outside their own sections of town. While newcomers perceive a strong sense of community, longtime residents say it pales compared with that of the past.

Any marketer can learn from this exercise. There’s inherent value in talking with your constituents – be they internal employees or external customers or prospects – to find out what they really think about a topic, an issue, a brand, a strategy. The output – interview transcripts, audio and/or video clips – is invaluable for anyone trying to take the pulse of a particular group. It can be used to inform decision-making and in some cases can also be packaged and served back to the community.

Sure beats the usual marketing-driven “thought leadership” that comes out of the executive suite.



We Care – for the Next Five Days

My Vonage phone crapped out on me again a week or so ago. Had a nice chat with Ezekiel the customer service rep, who troubleshot the problem and determined it was a faulty power adapter (for the second time in six months). He said they would send a replacement “in a few days.” Two days later I received an email asking me to fill out a survey about the experience: “Your feedback … would be extremely helpful in improving the process and providing valuable feedback.”

Well, I wasn’t going to complete a survey until I received the replacement part and made sure it worked. It arrived earlier this week, and the phone is functional again. Cleaning out my inbox today, I came across the survey and decided to click on the link to fill it out – and give Vonage high marks. “We’re sorry,” the web page read, “our records indicate your survey has expired.”

Another lesson in superficial customer care.

Social Media Curriculum: Beginner or Advanced?

Companies are all over the map in their embrace/avoidance of blogs and other social media. Some, especially tech firms, have given virtually free reign to their employees to launch blogs and talk directly to customers. Others are paralyzed by concerns over governance issues and the possibility that some corporate blogger will disclose something that doesn’t adhere to corporate policy or catches the probing eyes of the SEC.  

Even the experts can’t agree on how to approach corporate blogging. In the true spirit of this new medium, a curriculum of sorts has organically sprung up for social media marketing. Start with Jeremiah Owyang, a Forrester analyst who posted on the “three impossible conversations for corporations” (1. Asking for Feedback; 2. Saying Positive Things about your Competitors; 3. Admitting You Were Wrong.) Good, solid advice for the social media novice. 

David Churbuck retorted that those tips are way too basic to be useful for most corporate marketers, who he believes are past the Blogging 101 stage and are seeking more advanced education:

This corporate blogging stuff isn’t a two headed chicken in the freak tent anymore. This is mainstream baby. Anyone writing posts about “impossible” corporate conversations has to step it up – talk about the serious stuff, like – contravening corporate policy by privately resolving a blogged customer support issue and having the blogger publically state the solution and thereby set a precedent for all future complaints. Let’s get into that one and you’ll earn my respect.

Challenged to provide his own advice (as someone who lives the stuff daily), Churbuck offered a couple of Blogging 201 primers: one on the risks of a no-questions-asked blogger appeasement strategy, the other a broader list of 10 topics that he’d like to see more discussion about:

  1. Tool and platforms
  2. Pronouns
  3. Metrics
  4. Rogue SMM
  5. How to do SMM/SEO right
  6. Going Uplevel
  7. Organizational Ownership
  8. One vs many
  9. Review mechanism and buddy systems
  10. The politics of being a know-it-all

The pundit and the practitioner have both agreed to dig into these and other social media marketing topics over the next few months, which is good news for any marketer trying to get his or her arms around this brave new world of “customer engagement.”

Of course, any curriculum would be incomplete without some backround reading: I’ve provided a bit of that with a dusted-off interview I did in 2005 with Lenn Pryor, who created the Channel 9 website for Microsoft in 2004 that serves as a touchstone for current social media marketing.

When Actions Speak Louder than Words

Check email this morning, open one from HP with the semi-disturbing subject line, “HP wants to get to know you better.” Not sure I want that, but they’re offering 10% off on ink and multifunction printers if I update my email newsletter profile. I’m in the market for a new printer, so what the heck, it’s worth five minutes of my time. Click on the link, go to the landing page, and see this:

System Down

We’re sorry, but we are temporarily unavailable. Please try again soon.

This was less than two hours after I received the email. I now know more about them than they know about me.

Embrace the Swarm

Best presentation I’ve seen on social networking came from Chuck Brymer at the ANA’s annual conference in Phoenix on Friday. Brymer, president and CEO of DDB Worldwide, spoke of online communities as digital swarms, formed through a combination of technological advances and a growing distrust in institutions.

“People used to put a lot of trust in institutions,” he told about 1,200 attendees of the conference, held at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. “We believed what the government said, what the news media said, and even what advertisers said. It’s not like that today. As a society, we are more cynical and less believing. … We no longer just accept what we’re told by people in high places. Instead, we trust those who are close to us. Those with similar experiences. When you put the expanding digital swarm together with the simultaneous rise in trust in friends and family, you have a very powerful combination.”

This power, he added, “irrevocably changes” the roles of marketers. He compared the herd mentality of traditional marketing and advertising programs – communicating to people who passively sit in front of TVs and radios and read newspapers and magazines – to today’s far more active digital swarms: “The herd is passive. It lacks active intelligence. The swarm on the other hand is about actively sharing intelligence, and that is a huge distinction. While you can lead a herd, you cannot lead a swarm. You cannot issue instructions to a swarm. A swarm is not an audience in the traditional sense and it’s not looking to [marketers] for guidance.”

The implications of peer communication and localized information are significant, Brymer said. “Forget the idea that digital is the new media. The real new media is you and me.” As an example, he referenced, a site devoted to people “telling each other about the stuff they’re buying, eating, drinking, watching.”

How can marketers enter the swarm? One word: influence. “While you cannot lead a swarm, you can influence it,” Brymer explained. “Influence is one of the most valuable assets a brand can have in a networked world.” Influence, he said, should be measured in the same way we measure share of voice or share of market. “Brands that have influence command attention.”

In a swarm, he explained, success is determined by whether communities are attracted to your brand or run away from it. “Do people see you as a predator or a peer? If you are a peer, you have credibility and influence. As the word spreads throughout the swarm, people begin to flock to you. You gain greater influence and more people seek you out.”

This requires a level of authenticity that many advertisers may not be accustomed to. “Every touch point, every interaction influences whether your brand is accepted or rejected by the swarm,” Brymer said. “Every day, you are being appraised. The swarm is like a modern day Big Brother – it’s watching you, taking your measure, and evaluating your intentions.”

He suggested three ways marketers can influence the swarm:

  • Conviction: Brands that are influential, he explained, all start in the same place: with the personal vision and convictions of the marketers behind them. Brands that stand for something – he offered Harley Davidson, Apple and Volkswagen as prime examples – attract followers. “What makes these brands influential is not their size,” he said. “It’s that each believes in something and has built brand communities of influence among its members, who in turn influence others.”

  • Collaboration: Swarms want a say in how your products and services look, what they do, and what they should do better. Two examples: Lego, which offers downloadable software from its website that lets kids design their own creations>. Another is Philips, which lets consumers track their individual contributions to protecting the environment by switching to energy-saving light bulbs.

  • Creativity: As you would expect from the head of an ad agency, Brymer touted creativity as “the one element that can influence a swarm more than anything.” Creativity is universal, regardless of the media in which it exists, because it allows marketers to connect with people at an emotional level. “Interesting ideas and provocative thinking influences swarms.” The power of the digital swarm is its ability to pass these ideas on virally. One example: an ad from a Dutch insurance company called Centraal Beheer that has close to 1 million views on YouTube:

Brymer closed with a (slightly paraphrased) quote from former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shineski: “You may not like change, but you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

New Blog Alert: Business and Networking

Former CMO mag colleague Constantine von Hoffman has a new blog called Business and Networking, which if you knew Con or follow his other online exploits would immediately conclude that he’s playing it way too straight with the name. Anyhoo, he has a nice post today on the evolution of social networking from standalone site to online feature, keying off a post by Wired’s Chris Anderson. Con talks about the folly of businesses jumping on the social networking bandwagon without considering the need to provide good content as a hook for snagging like-minded enthusiasts:

Content/information that is aimed at a specific — not general — market. People already know where to go connect with everyone, now they need a place where they can connect with someone in particular. But don’t throw up a site and say it’s for Left-Handed Truffle makers and expect the Left-Handed Truffle makers to come flocking to you and provide all the content. Saying you’re aimed at a group is not enough. You have to give that group something beyond the ability to share videos, etc. That something is some sort of information.

As I pointed out a few months ago, I agree that the next big social networking movement will be toward niche/special-interest groups, not full-blown, category-owning destination sites like MySpace or Facebook. And as I noted on Con’s post, businesses can succeed as facilitators for users who share common interests, but they can’t force-feed community to their customer base.

‘Simpsonize Me’ Site – D’oh!

Burger King and its agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky figured out the whole Internet viral marketing thing a long time ago, first with the Subservient Chicken and since with a steady stream of innovative programs for engaging online surfers and gamers. Their latest brainchild is the Simpsonize Me site, part of BK’s extensive tie-in with The Simpsons Movie, which debuts tomorrow. BK has had loads of traffic and plenty of positive buzz since last week’s launch of the Simpsonize Me site, which is supposed to enable visitors to upload a photo and some personal info to have themselves rendered as a Simpsons character. From the Miami Herald:

In the first three days of’s launch, the site received more than 16 million hits, and more than 700,000 photos were ”Simpsonized,” according to Burger King spokeswoman Robin Chung. Visitors were uploading an average of three photos each and spending about 12 minutes on the site.

”We provide a forum where they can be entertained and have fun, and that’s the most effective way to get people engaged with our brand,” said Tiana Lang, media and interactive manager for Burger King.

The site is so popular, in fact, that it’s now disabled. D’oh! I thought we were past the days of overloaded web servers caused by an unexpected traffic surge. But how could this have been unexpected? No excuse for a marketer launching a promotion without coordinating with the techies to anticipate and plan for heavy traffic. Being told to come back later is probably not the type of engagement Lang was referring to.


The Genius of ‘American Idol’

Has anyone captured the essence of integrated marketing as well as the producers and sponsors of “American Idol”? I highly doubt it.

[Full disclosure: I, like bazillions of others, watch Idol every week. It’s the rarest of contemporary TV viewing: a show that my wife and I can watch with our 16-, 11- and 9-year-olds without cringing over inappropriate content (with the exception of the occasional poorly placed ad that grosses out my oldest daughter and makes my son cover his face).]

The show was one of the first to integrate new media into its broadcast with the text-message and online voting system viewers use each week to decide the fate of the contestants. Talk about engagement – last week’s show garnered more than 80 70 million votes. Idol’s producers have perfected product integration as well, with Coke cups prominently placed on the judges’ table each week, the Cingular/AT&T texting sponsorship, and contestants appearing in Ford commercials shot as music videos and shown during the broadcast. The viral component of Idol is off the charts. It’s the ultimate water cooler event. A Google blog search on “American Idol” returned 569,124 results.

Last week’s “Idol Gives Back” charity event raised more than $60 million through phone and online donations. Viewers could purchase and download videos from the show via iTunes, with proceeds going to the Charity Projects Entertainment Fund. They have even perfected the art (science?) of bringing dead celebs back to life, as evidenced by the Celine Dion-Elvis duet that left me wondering if The King was, in fact, still roaming the streets of Vegas.

The success of the show and all of its extensions will be a case study one day of how to blend mass-market and one-to-one media and marketing to provide an all-encompassing experience for consumers.