Loose talk may no longer cost lives – but it could cost your reputation
We’ve all had that feeling. The sinking feeling that comes from wondering if somebody’s googling us, and what they’re likely to find.
Did we post something embarrassing at 3am on Facebook? Did we remember to tighten up our security? Did we even read the last email that Facebook sent out with its interminable privacy settings? Did we really understand it?
And Twitter? Is there anything embarrassing in the ether that might compromise our career prospects, our chances of closing the deal or winning the contract?
In the last six months alone, I’ve heard a number of horror stories from friends and clients:
- A woman who called in sick, but continued tweeting all day long about shopping, TV programmes she was watching and what her plans were for the evening.
- A senior manager who dropped out and did his own thing, wrote several devastating posts on his blog about the corporate world, and even gave an interview to a lifestyle website about how destructive full-time employment was. Subsequently, he had a change of heart, and decided he wanted to rejoin the world of work. It was then that he discovered the term ‘Google CV’ – the one that’s more revealing than your carefully managed version.
- A corporate tweeter who got involved in a slanging match with a fan of the competition. It became more and more heated, and he ended up saying things that damaged the image of his company – and his job prospects. On reflection, and trawling through the tweets, he realised that the ‘fan’ was in all probability a plant by the competition – a sponsored troll, as it were.
There’s never been as much chatter out there – or as much danger of damaging your image. It’s something that political parties have learned to their cost. If you’ve ever watched the BBC’s The Thick of it, you’ll have laughed at chaos caused by 24-hour news management in the always-on world of the Westminster village.
But it’s not just politicians. Companies too have to make sure they’re coordinated on all fronts. They need to manage the message across every conduit, and often, that’s not easy.
Act in haste
Publishing online has never been simpler. A client of mine that helps organisations manage and monitor website standards quotes a wonderful phrase when it comes to publishing content: ‘empowering the irresponsible’.
It’s not so much a criticism as an observation on how easy it is for somebody – anybody – to put ‘stuff’ out there. That stuff can be off-brand, off-colour and off-message.
And that can be devastating to a company brand – which can easily account for 50% or more of a company’s market capitalisation.
So what do you do – indeed, what can you do – to control the message in an always-on, 24×7, 360-degree world?
Well, you can start with the basics: ensuring that you say the same thing, in the same tone of voice, through all channels.
- If you’re tweeting, remember that the world is watching. Twitter is great for getting the message out and building a community, but what you say needs to maintain the same standards as everything else you communicate. Somebody once told me they treat every tweet as if it were a press release. That certainly focuses the mind.
- Make sure all your people are on the same page; and if that page is Facebook, make sure they know about it. Just recently, I spoke to somebody who told me that their support people had no idea they even had a corporate Facebook page, or what they were saying on it.
- Make your default mode corporate. By that, I don’t mean that you should fall back on the dreaded business-speak. Just remember that corporate Facebooking, tweeting and blogging are not the same as the personal equivalents. It’s the difference between a business dinner at a staid restaurant, and a raucous meal at your local pizzeria. It’s all about context.
- If you’re tweeting, posting and blogging, make sure to keep an eye out for developing situations. Monitoring things regularly is the best way of heading trouble off at the pass.
And lastly, if in doubt, leave it out.
‘Think twice, post once’, a friend said to me recently. He said it’s saved him from innumerable spats on social media. By taking the time to think of an appropriate, measured response, he’s managed to maintain the moral high ground, and keep his company’s reputation intact.
Managing the message is often more about what you don’t say than what you do. Silence rarely gets you into trouble.
Which is a good note to end on.
From two wheels to two feet, it pays to paint a picture
Just recently, a friend told me about a bike that a friend of his had bought.
It wasn’t just any bike. This was a racing bike, hand-built to his exact specifications. It had state-of-the-art everything, and more electronics than the average car. But that wasn’t all it had in common with its four-wheeled cousin.
For this bike carried the princely price tag of £8,000. That’s $12,000, give or take a few cents.
So why did he do it? Why not buy a bargain bike for less than £100? Here’s why:
- It’s unique. This type of bike, with this configuration, doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
- It’s hand-made, which means it must be better than something that’s come off an automated production line. In fact, the company he bought it from said it was ‘lovingly crafted’, which makes it sound more like a Stradivarius than a bicycle.
- It makes a statement about the owner (he’s wealthy, has good taste, recognises quality and is prepared to pay for it).
- It makes him feel good. Well let’s face it, blowing £8k like that would make anyone feel good – for a while. But it’s more than the adrenaline high of the purchase; it’s the ongoing pleasure of owning and using something that’s the best.
But here’s the thing: this friend of a friend doesn’t actually cycle that much.
In fact, in the year or so he’s owned this masterpiece, he’s taken it out a handful of times. Mostly, he simply likes telling people how much it cost, and how it was ‘lovingly crafted’ by expert bicycle makers.
In other words, he didn’t really buy a bike. He bought a story. About the bike, about himself, about his lifestyle.
Buying is never an easy process – for the buyer. For the seller, it’s just another sale, and after a while, one feels very much like another. But for the buyer, it’s always a bit of a wrench to make a decision and go for it.
It’s not the cost. Or at least, it’s not just the cost.
Almost as bad as spending too much, or too little, is making the wrong choice. The one you’ll regret later, or that your friends will laugh at. The one that keeps you awake at 3am, or has you scrambling online to see what the returns policy is.
So we look for affirmation and validation. We check with friends, we look for testimonials, we read reviews. But there’s always a little twinge of doubt, which never really goes away.
Just last week, I bought an app for my tablet on Google Play. I wasn’t sure it did everything I wanted, but I was pretty confident I could return it if I had to.
And I could – but Google’s returns window is 15 minutes, so you’ve got to be pretty snappy. Luckily for me, a couple of minutes was enough: the app did all I hoped for and more. Plus, it was 50% off, so I’d made the right choice at a bargain price.
Things aren’t always that clear-cut, though. Reviews can vary wildly online. Friends can give conflicting advice and opinions. And your initial impressions can be mixed, so you’re left none the wiser about whether you’ve made the right choice.
One clever way of giving people a feeling that they’re doing the right thing is by showing them just that. So it’s not about the purchase (the feature) but about the knock-on effect (the benefit).
These boots were made for talking
Tom’s Shoes knows all about selling the benefits.
Their tagline is One for one. For every pair of shoes you buy, they give a pair to kids in the Third World. So the more you spend, the more you give. Suddenly, your shoe addiction becomes an act of charity.
Guilt is turned into pleasure, and pleasure into virtue. Talk about a win-win situation.
Now we can’t all do a Tom and give away our products and services to make people feel good. But we can make people feel better about buying.
It’s really just a case of taking the sale and turning it into a story. The car is about freedom. The new smartphone is about having fun with friends. The life insurance policy is about caring for loved ones. The coffee is about making sure producers earn a living wage.
Behind every sale is a story. Behind every feature is a benefit.
Behind every lovingly hand-crafted one-of-a-kind bike is… the £99 one that I noticed as I walked past the bike shop the other day.
Now that’s my kind of story.
Find out more:
- A step in the right direction. You win, they win, with Tom’s Shoes.
A bitter taste and a different view
Dog bytes man
Many years ago, when I was a big cheese in the high-tech arena (don’t worry – I much prefer being a small cheese, answerable to nobody) we had a saying: eat your own dogfood.
It’s not as disgusting as it sounds, and it made perfect sense. The dogfood was what we pushed out there: software. And the dogs, if you’ll forgive the canine comparison, were the users.
So the message was clear: if it’s good enough for them (users, not dogs, you understand) it’s good enough for us. And that went for all software, from dodgy betas right down to the occasional roller-coaster experience of alpha code. If you expect people to use it externally, to run their businesses on it and trust their data to it, you have to get chomping.
And chomp we did.
It was wonderfully liberating. Just like the Queen Mother in the East End in World War II, you could look users in the eye and tell them you too had experienced the terrors of crashes, dodgy performance and features that were more bug, less feature.
But it doesn’t stop at software. Service is just as edible – in a metaphorical sense.
Every so often, I’d phone the call centre, disguise my voice and ask a difficult or sensitive question, just to see how the staff handled it. I’d ask product-related questions to see how accurate their answers were.
And occasionally, when I was feeling really mischievous, I’d phone up as Mr Angry and demand to be put through to that accursed product marketing manager (me). Now that was an eye-opener.
Putting yourself in your customer’s shoes can be distinctly uncomfortable, as you feel the pinch of bad service and the squeezed toe of off-message comments. Getting the run-around can be even more tiring, but imagine how much worse it is for your genuine clients, who can’t snap out of the role play and reveal their identity.
Seeing how you treat your customers is a sobering experience. But it’s one that we should all try now and then to see just what a dog’s life is really like.
Speaking of which, last week I had my eyes tested again. I’m still not quite used to the idea of wearing glasses, two years after finally having to admit that I couldn’t read the small print. Or any print, come to that.
I’ve avoided the dentist for more years than I’m willing to admit (post-traumatic brace syndrome) but I decided I really couldn’t put off the optician.
Not that I’ve noticed a deterioration in the last two years, but they did say that’s the standard testing interval. And they scared me with stories of people leaving it for four or five years, then really struggling to adjust to their new glasses.
So I gave in.
Besides, there was a gentle reminder from not one, but two opticians that it was that time again. (See how effective and easy following up is? And the knee-jerk reaction to a simple, computer-generated letter?)
I’ll spare you the endless details of the bottom lines (small print), balloons and red/green boxes, but instead focus in true blogger style on the 5 marketing lessons I learned from having my eyes tested:
- Free should be free (the eye test, that is) not ‘free if you subsequently buy a pair of glasses from us’. It’s really important when you’re making a promise that you don’t raise the reader’s hopes, only to dash them on the rocks of reality.
- Too much choice is no choice, especially when it looks designed to baffle. I was presented with so many options, I just stared and went blank. One pair for £69, with a free coating worth £30. Or a two-for-one offer, but you pay for the coatings. Or a budget pair for £25, and again you pay for the coating. There was one choice the nice lady didn’t give me: do nothing, have a think about it, and come back later (or maybe never). Which is the one I went for.
- Wear your own glasses – which is another way of saying the dogfood thing. When the optician finished my eye test, she obviously hit a real or virtual bank-robber-button-under-the-desk gizmo, which brought the saleswoman to the door to segue into the selling process. It felt creepy and manipulative, but they’re so used to it they’ve probably stopped wondering what it feels like to see things through their clients’ eyes. If you see what I mean.
- Walk away from a sale, and clock up those brownie points. When I got home, I reviewed the numbers, and the difference between my original prescription and this one was minuscule. I found out online (where else?) that I could easily wait another year before changing my glasses. If they’d told me that, they’d have been my new best friends, and top of my Christmas card list. But they didn’t, and I felt just a little bit used.
In the end, of course, I was the one who walked away from the sale. Or at least from that sale. And when I do change my glasses, I’ll order them online. I found a great site with huge choice, fast delivery and excellent how-to videos. And free coatings. No, not ‘free’ – just free.
They also pass the only test that really counts for me: the focus on my bottom line.
Speaking of which, you’re right – my five lessons are actually four. Well spotted. Perhaps I can’t last another year.
A little thought, and a shoestring budget, can keep your name in the headlines
It was Oscar Wilde who said, “there’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about”.
Never was a truer word spoken when it comes to marketing. Because if you’re not being talked about, someone else is. The media, clients and prospects only have so much bandwidth, so it’s a zero-sum game. Your loss is your competitors’ gain.
So how do you make sure you’re the one who’s on everybody’s lips?
Wheel of fortune
Back in the 1980s, the Docklands Light Railway was inaugurated in London. And the big novelty of the trains was that they’d be driverless, unlike Tube and overground trains. How futuristic. How forward-thinking.
And how scary.
They were, supposedly, perfectly safe: computer-controlled, centrally monitored and packed with the latest technology. So far, so reassuring. Except that people weren’t reassured.
They couldn’t get away from the idea that it was dangerous. So the DLR gave them the safety blanket they were looking for: drivers, kitted out in eye-catching red-and-blue uniforms. Except they weren’t necessary, and strictly speaking, they weren’t driving the trains. Just helping give people the warm fuzzy feeling that somebody was in control.
Fast-forward 30 years, and Google is talking about driverless cars.
Now, that’s an even scarier idea than driverless trains. At least trains run on tracks, so the potential for snarl-ups is limited. But cars? How will a driverless car handle traffic jams, other drivers who break the rules, and poor GPS coverage?
Who knows. And who cares? Because in the end, just like Project Glass (those weird HUD specs coming out of Mountain View), driverless cars are simply an idea that Google is rolling out to get people talking.
And talking they certainly are.
Wing and a prayer
Budget airline Ryanair knows the value of talk.
They’re past masters at the art of free publicity. I watched a documentary BBC2 a couple of weeks ago where Michael O’Leary, the cheeky chief exec, was asked if there was any truth in the rumour that they were going to charge people to use the toilets, or have passengers standing up.
Of course there wasn’t, he said. But what a great way to get people talking about you. Both claims were false, but it brought them lots of welcome PR.
The canny marketers at Ryanair don’t employ an advertising agency, and knock up all their own ads in-house. They create – and sometimes court – controversy, simply to get their name in the headlines.
Competitors easyJet are no strangers to guerilla marketing either. When British Airways launched budget airline Go back in the 1990s, easyJet’s Stelios Haji-Ioannou hijacked (figuratively speaking) the inaugural flight. He and his team turned up in orange jumpsuits (this was before Guantanamo) with easyJet branding, boarded the flight and gave free easyJet tickets to Go passengers.
An easy win.
Good, bad and different
When it comes to publicity, there’s no such thing as bad news. Or an idea that’s too wacky or unbelievable to put out there. It could be a product you’re testing, or an idea you’re not sure about.
So what do you do? Broadcast it loud and wide, and see what happens.
- Is Colgate really thinking of launching toothbrushes with caffeine or slow-release medication? It doesn’t really matter. The fact is, it got people talking around the world, and you can’t buy that sort of publicity no matter how much you spend.
- Is Dollar Shave Club (whose hilarious video I’ve mentioned before) really going to market wet wipes to men? Of course they are. Why wouldn’t they? Toilet paper is an $8.4bn market in the US, so it’s an opportunity to clean up (yes, intended). And in true DSC style, they’ve produced another hilarious video to get people talking – and laughing.
- Did Cheerios have any inkling that they’d create a social-media storm when they featured a mixed-race couple in a breakfast cereal advert? Of course they did. The racist ranters on YouTube came off worst out of the affair. Cheerios maintained the moral high ground, got a ton of free publicity and sold lots of little loops. Clever old them.
Who’s sorry now?
OK, I hear what you’re saying. The common denominator here is that from budget airlines to toothpaste makers, from butt wipes (yes, really – watch the video) to breakfast cereal, they’re in control. They created the story, and fanned the flames of controversy – and of publicity.
But what about when you’re not in the driving seat? When you’re taken by surprise and overtaken by events? When the ether is crackling with a buzz that you didn’t create?
Simple. You check it out, size it up, and use it to your advantage.
Don’t defend yourself, as you’ll look defensive. Don’t attack, or you’ll be offensive. Instead, keep your cool, take a deep breath and crank up your sense of humour.
It’s exactly what maxipad manufacturer Bodyform did recently when they were faced with a humorous post on their Facebook page that went viral. Caroline Williams, CEO of the company, quickly responded with a tongue-in-cheek video that made a virtue out of a necessity, and came clean about the little white lies they’ve been telling, to spare men the truth.
It’s a stroke of genius, and strikes exactly the right tone.
Creating a buzz is the holy grail of marketing. If you started it, great. Just make sure you stay on top of it. And if you didn’t, you can still stay on top of it, with a little thought and very little budget.
Oscar was right: being talked about is the lesser of two evils. Though what he would have made of ‘butt wipes’ is anybody’s guess.
The quest for perfection vs. dogged determination
I recently caught up with a marketing chum of mine.
Last time I spoke to him, he was in the doldrums. A campaign he was running for a client hadn’t paid dividends. And yet he was sure that he’d covered every angle. The offer was irresistible. The mailing list was qualified. He tested different messages and saw which one worked best.
In brief, he’d done everything right. And yet it was all wrong. His campaign simply wasn’t delivering the goods – for him or his client.
When I left him after lunch the last time I saw him, he shuffled off despondently, scratching his head and licking his wounds (don’t try that at home).
We didn’t see each other for a while, as we were carried in different directions, on different schedules. So when we did finally get together, I was keen to hear if he’d ever got to the bottom of his marketing misfire.
He hadn’t, he told me. So I offered the meagre consolation we all trot out in these situations.
“You can’t win them all,” I said with a what-can-you-do shrug.
“Oh but I did win,” he shot back. “Big time.”
And what had he changed, I wondered. The offer? The mailing list? The message? The media?
More of the same (but different)
Nothing. Yes, that’s right. He changed absolutely nothing.
He simply followed up, again and again. There was a second and a third email. A telephone call. And another email, for good measure.
And suddenly, as if from nowhere, orders started flooding in. Not because prospects were beaten into submission, but simply because his offer kept popping up. So they took notice, and realised it really was irresistible.
Now to somebody like me (inveterate proof-reader and red-pen wielder, near-obsessive tidier and perfection-chaser) this is counter-intuitive. If something doesn’t work, it’s because it’s wrong. So you need to change it, improve it, perfect it. Then try again.
Except often, you don’t.
It’s like going to the gym, or learning a language, or playing the piano or mastering perspective. It’s the regularity that counts, the repetition of the same moves over and over again. Slowly, over time, your technique improves.
Suddenly, you’re sculpted, or fluent, a virtuoso or a dab hand at sketching. Without even knowing it. Without changing a thing.
The key thing here is that quantity is almost limitless. There are always new prospects. There’s always another email you can send, another call you can make, another tweet you can write or a blog post you can knock together. You can keep turning up again and again.
Quality, on the other hand, has a ceiling. It could be the limit of your knowledge, or the extent of your marketing budget. The skill of your designers or the detail of your mailing list. Beyond a certain point, you simply cannot go. And once you hit that point, you have few options left.
Apart from the obvious one, that is (it also starts with a ‘q’).
At which point it’s worth bearing some simple marketing and sales truths in mind:
- If you spread the load, the relative weight of one ‘no’ is not nearly as important. So go broad, not deep.
- It’s not personal, so you shouldn’t take it personally. You’re marketing, or selling, or promoting, and other people often say no simply because they’re suffering from information overload – not because they don’t like you or your company.
- You can’t control everything, so you shouldn’t try to. Tick the obvious boxes, and go for it.
- It could be something you haven’t thought of – in fact, it probably is. An overflowing In Box, a similar offer yesterday, a school run that’s more important than your call, or a budget that’s in the nether reaches of marketing deep space.
- Good enough is good enough, so stop trying to improve it. Don’t rework the email – send it to another 100 people. Don’t try to tweak every last detail of the offer – follow up with a phone call. Don’t obsess about the blog design and formatting – get cracking on another batch of posts.
And last but not least, remember that plodders often outperform perfectionists. Which is what I cheekily said to my friend over a grande cappuccino.
But he didn’t take offence. Instead, he wiped off his foamy moustache and beamed a broad smile.
“Plodder and proud of it,” he said loud and clear. “A rich, successful plodder.”