Anecdote Takes Center Stage in a National News Story

That’s exactly what happened last week when CNN covered President Obama’s intention to veto the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport oil from Canada to Mexico.

Check out the headline.

Meet the pen Obama used to veto the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Obviously, the focus of the story lies on a Presidential decision.

Yet,  the pen makes headline.

But we don’t actually “meet the pen” until almost 500 words later at the very end of the story:

That pen is a left-handed Cross Townsend, assembled at the 169-year-old company’s plant in Lincoln, Rhode Island, from components made in China.

“The old saying goes the pen is mightier than the sword, and in these days we don’t use swords anymore, we use pens,” said Bryan Fournier, vice president of operations at Cross Pens.

What’s going on here?

This is a case where the needs of journalism and PR converge as one. I continue to believe that PR underutilizes the anecdote as a storytelling technique, and this is why the Cross Pen example stood out.

CNN is looking for a way to differentiate its news story on President Obama exercising his veto power.

PipelineMontage 02-15

As you can see from the smattering of headlines above, all of them essentially say the same thing.

On the PR side, Cross Pen is looking to “borrow” the news event as a way to shine the national spotlight on its product.

Reverse-engineering the story, all cues point to Cross pitching the anecdote as an exclusive. I say this because the anecdote doesn’t appear in any other coverage. It says something about the power of  anecdotes in today’s journalism that they can be pitched this way.

And the end of the story, specifically the clichéd comment from the Cross executive around the “pen is mightier than the sword, points to a pitch.

But the most revealing data point comes from the 81-second video that accompanies the news story in which the pen takes on the lead role. We even get a peek into the manufacturing process and learn that making pens for presidents is indeed cool (her words, not mine).

The video offers another proof point that “sausage making” content — the process and actions that take place behind the curtain — makes for an effective storytelling technique.

Note: Kudos  to one of our senior account professionals in our Pacific Northwest office, Kali Bean, who brought the CNN story to my attention. I’ll be making the trek to our Pacific Northwest office later this week to take the entire team through our storytelling workshop.


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Social Buttons for Sale, Misguided Measurement and Telling Stories is Hard

The grab bag makes its second appearance this year.

Again, these are topics that can’t quite stand on their own, but I found worth highlighting.

Social Buttons for Sale?

Go to virtually any online media property and you’ll find two social buttons, Twitter and Facebook. The big two dominate the sharing of media stories.

But I recently saw something for the first time.

WSJ - Evernote Button

A button for Evernote joins Twitter and Facebook on The Wall Street Journal.

It caused me to wonder if the Journal sold this real estate, perhaps with some type of payment model tied to usage.

Misguided Measurement

Contently interviewed Seth Godin, asking some damn good questions that produced some damn good answers.

This exchange in particular caught my attention:

Question: But then there’s the whole obsession now with tying content to revenues — in other words, tracking whether people who are consuming your content will eventually buy something from you, and putting a hard number on each piece of content you create. Do you think that’s misguided?

Godin: Oh, I think there’s no question it’s misguided. It’s been shown over and over again to be misguided — that in a world of zero marginal cost, being trusted is the single most urgent way to build a business. You don’t get trusted if you’re constantly measuring and tweaking and manipulating so that someone will buy from you.

I don’t have any problem with measurements, per se; I’m just saying that most of the time when organizations start to measure stuff, they then seek to industrialize it, to poke it into a piece of software, to hire ever cheaper people to do it.

The challenge that we have when we industrialize content is we are asking people who don’t care to work their way through a bunch of checklists to make a number go up, as opposed to being human beings connecting with other human beings.

In short, trust comes from helping the person, not selling the person.

Business blogs at their best deliver information that the target audience values, which means staying away from promoting products.

Telling Stories is Hard Work

I stumbled across an essay in The Atlantic from 2009 called Telling Tails.

While I enjoyed the narrative, it’s the subhead that stuck in my brain.

The problem with unsuccessful stories is usually simple: they are boring, a consequence of the failure of imagination. To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer.

The same could be said of bringing a storytelling dimension to business communications and avoiding the dreaded “B” word.

It is hard-lifting.

It is heavy-duty.

Like any craft, it takes time and practice.

If you believe Malcom Gladwell, 10,000 hours or so gets you headed in the right direction.

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Time for PR to Rally Behind “Earned Search”

Earned_Search PR and SEO

I spoke on “PR and SEO. No Longer a Match Made in Hell” at the Holmes Innovation Summit last week.

In the course of preparing for the talk, I had a Mt. Sinai moment.

Imagine the advertising world foisting the term “organic media” on the PR industry to replace “earned media.” We would have a conniption (not a long-tail play, but it’s a fresh noun).

Yet, we allow the SEO cartel to not only define paid search, but also the non-paid version by “organic search” or “natural search.”

Hence — figured that borrowing from the legal lexicon couldn’t hurt — moving forward I propose we call this activity:

Earned search.

That’s really what it is.

Similar to earning the attention of a journalist who covers the company in a story, you must earn your way to the SERP (search engine results page) for a given search inquiry.

And unlike journalists who have biases, agendas and the inevitable bad hair days, the Google algorithm operates with clinical objectivity. Google wants the best content to win, meaning the individual conducting the search query retrieves the results in descending order of quality (and relevance).

Sounds like earned search to me.

Of course, SEO consultancies can and do leverage their technical acuity to try to game earned search, but Google’s Hummingbird update in 2013 went a long way toward addressing this issue.

Google’s Hummingbird update on SEO

Furthermore, all signals point to Google continuing to put effort into refining the algorithm to reward the highest quality content.

Even the SEO gurus are getting on board with the “E” word.

Check out this video clip from Rand Fishkin, CEO of the SEO consultancy MOZ, from one of his white board sessions a few weeks ago.

This one passage says it all (entire transcript from the video at the end of the post):

“Instead we have to earn those ranking signals. Because we’ve shifted from link building or ranking signal building to ranking signal earning, we’d better have people who will help amplify our message.”

His message is clear. The days of pulling out the credit card and buying from the link farms out of Bangalore, Volgograd and the like to bolster lame content in the name of search are over. Today, the signals that Google cares about — people sharing and linking to content because they find it valuable — are earned.

Let’s band together as a profession to use “earned search” to describe the non-paid results that Google delivers for a given search inquiry.

Who’s with me?

Rand Fishkin Transcript from Video

SEO has turned from an exercise where we essentially take content that already exists or create some content that will solve a searcher problem and then try and acquire links to it, or point links to it, or point ranking signals at it.

And instead it’s one where we have to go out and earn those ranking signals.

And because we’ve shifted from link building, or ranking signal building to ranking signal earning, we’d better have people who will help amplify our message.

Right? The content that we create, the value that we provide, the service or the product, the message about our brand. We don’t have those people who care enough, for some reason … care enough about what we’re doing to help share it with others; we’re going to be shouting into a void.



PR and SEO. No Longer a Match Made in Hell.

PR & SEO Holmes Innovation Summit

This headline served as the title for my talk at the Holmes Innovation Summit on Tuesday.

The pulpit gave me an opportunity to evangelize one of my favorite causes, the opportunity for PR to jump into the SEO game.

Stepping back for a minute, the genius of Google’s advertising model for search lies in allowing companies to be very specific in who they target. If a company makes software for shipping packages, and the same company wants a paid ad to appear for the term [online shipping software], the mere action of clicking on the ad qualifies the person as a sales prospect. Paid search has essentially given Google a license to print money to the tune of about $45 billion in 2014.

Now compare securing media coverage to creating an advertisement. There’s a reason advertising agencies aren’t in the PR business and PR agencies stay away from traditional advertising. Each discipline requires a different set of skills.

Yet, SEO consultancies have handled both paid search and organic search  (the non-paid results served up by Google for a search) forever.

This makes no sense.

Much like generating media coverage, it’s the content that underpins organic search. Furthermore, by virtue of NOT being paid, organic search delivers  greater credibility. After all, it’s in Google’s best interest to serve up the best organic results for a given search.

Organic search would seem like a natural extension of what PR does best.

So why has the profession stayed on the sidelines?

SEO scares PR.

SEO intimidates PR.

Taking liberties with the Rolling Stone campaign from the 1980s, the following captures the flawed premise.

Perception vs. Reality of SEO

PR still perceives SEO as a technical endeavor better left to the pocket-protector professionals. Under “Perception,” you see the meta data from the Toyota home page and what appears to be a bunch of complex coding.

The reality is you don’t need to be super technical or a programmer for most organic search campaigns, particularly in the B2B sphere. What you see under “Reality” is the title tag buried in the same meta data from the Toyota home page. That’s essentially the technical brainpower that went into the SEO on this page.

It’s not that tough.

Google wants the best content to win.

Equally important, Google is striving to squeeze the technical gamesmanship out of organic search. The Hummingbird update (to the search algorithm) announced on September 26, 2013 sent a clear message of Google’s long-term intentions to value signals reflecting quality of content over technical acuity.

Assuming the PR function is writing content that’s valued by the target audience and isn’t easily found elsewhere — an assumption to be challenged at another time — PR now sits in a better position than SEO consultancies to take on organic search assignments.

Don’t be scared!


How B2B Companies Can Bring Method to the Social Media Madness

B2B visual storytelling, social media

I saw a LinkedIn study that claimed that 84 percent of B2B executives source social media to make a purchasing decision. Even if the stat is on the high side (skewed by LinkedIn’s agenda), the fact that B2B buyers (like the rest of the human race) spend more time online means more time on social media.

Yet, there’s an even greater fundamental reason for B2B companies to get the social media religion. As part of the due diligence process, B2B buyers depend on digital sources, often starting with that trusty rectangle called Google Search.

So it stands to reason that B2B companies should be advancing their online presence beyond their websites. This way, they can increase the probability that those conducting online due diligence on their category will run into them in the virtual world.

Social media can help this cause.

The challenge lies in all the social media choices that can overwhelm B2B companies to the point that they figure the safe thing to do is to follow what everyone else is doing. Which explains the numerous B2B companies deploying Facebook and Twitter as their social media strategy.

Here’s another to way to look at the social media sphere.

For B2B companies, persuasive communications requires in-depth content.

Spending three bucks per month on an app that identifies stores selling homemade ice cream can be an impulse buy. But with the price point of a B2B purchase in the hundreds, thousands or even millions of dollars, the decision-making process tilts heavily toward to the intellectual side.

That’s how I’ve organized the various social media platforms, segmenting those designed to touch the intellectual side from the emotional plays.

social_media-chart on emotional vs. intellectual business storytelling

I’m not saying that B2B companies should ignore the emotional side of the equation.

Instead, it’s about what a B2B company wants to get out of its social media effort. If the focus is on lead generation and/or nudging the prospect through the sales cycle, social media should emphasize the platforms in the upper half that allow for deeper content. If the core objective involves brand building or perhaps recruitment, the tools in the lower half should take priority.

Keep in mind that this is a starting point, and there are exceptions to the rule and gray areas. For example, while Twitter itself is the epitome of short-form narrative, it can be effective in directing traffic to a company blog. Using my own blog as an example, social generates 35 percent of the traffic with Twitter constituting 83 percent of the social traffic.

A few more comments for context:

  • When I put this chart together a couple years ago, LinkedIn offered the worst of both worlds — it lacked emotive powers and depth of content. Since making its publishing platform available to all users, it’s now a viable option for the intellectual side. If LinkedIn were ever to allow publishing from the company page, it would move even further north on the chart.
  • On the topic of publishing, if a B2B company calls out thought leadership as a marketing/communications objective, it should give strong consideration to investing in a blog.
  • B2B companies undervalue SlideShare as a social platform that marries depth of content and visual storytelling.
  • Obviously, social media platforms like YouTube and even Facebook can be shaped with strong intellectual undercurrents. My chart reflects the typical use of these tools.

One final point —

No one has cracked the code on the perfect social media strategy for a B2B company.

With this in mind, an approach that embraces experimentation helps.


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