Archive for October, 2012

Mundane Interactions Offer Opportunity to Inject Storytelling into the Brand

PR, public relations, storytelling, brand storytelling

Every interaction with the outside world is an opportunity to build your brand.

Even those mundane interactions.

One could argue that the “mundane” actually offers one of the best opportunities to stand out, since others are tracking to the status quo.

This often leads to template communications, the opposite of communications guided by storytelling techniques.

Take the back and forth of subscribing to some type of media product.

The default for subscribing to a blog using one of the WordPress plugins goes like this:

You successfully subscribed to my newsletter. You’ll receive in few minutes a confirmation email. Follow the link in it to confirm the subscription. If the email takes more than 15 minutes to appear in your mailbox, check the spam folder.

Once you click on the confirmation email, this comes your way:

Your subscription has been confirmed! Thank you!

Not exactly brimming with personality.

And why the yelling with double exclamation points?

In contrast, we’ve applied storytelling techniques to the communications triggered by a subscription of our “What’s Up” blog.

Here’s our initial salvo after subscribing:

PR, public relations, PR storytelling, What's Up blog, Hoffman Agency, business communications, brand storytelling

Note the conversational tone and a touch of fun with language.

The click on the confirmation email brings:

PR, public relations, brand storytelling, PR storytelling, business communications, Hoffman Agency, What's Up blog

Nothing fancy.

One exclamation point gets across our enthusiasm.

The approach lets the subscriber know that there are actually human beings at the other end of the pipe.



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Experimentation in Content Marketing Offers Promise of Competitive Advantage

I participated on a panel called “Creating and Leveraging Epic Content” at the UBM Electronics Marketing Summit last week.

An earlier session at the Summit flashed the following words:

  • It’s really hard to write quality content.

Note the slide didn’t say “It’s really hard to write content.” Anyone can write content. That’s easy.

It’s the “quality” part that proves troublesome.

As Dennis Hopper uttered in “Easy Rider” –

PR, public relations, storytelling, PR storytelling, business communication, Hoffman Agency, competitive advantage, PR content

David Blaza from UBM facilitated our panel and primed the dialogue with a few slides including data from a BtoB Magazine study on the “why.”

PR, Pr strategies, public relations, storytelling, PR storytelling, business communications, hoffman agency, competitive advantage

There’s no question that content marketing in the right hands can produce leads as well as deliver brand awareness and thought leadership. I do find it odd that SEO ranked so low since one would logically think that quality content + SEO = increased traffic, which in turn increases leads.

In a sense, content marketing has been around forever. We just called it white papers or speeches or bylined articles. With so many more channels at our disposal – the wonders of digital – content marketing gives us a term to wrap up all this activity in a tidy bundle.

With that said, I think that the companies willing to take fresh eyes to content marketing and experiment are the ones who will gain competitive advantage.

Here are a few thoughts on what that experimentation might look like:

  • Harness the Collective Writing Power of Employees: My definition of content marketing encapsulates social media. Decentralizing social media so that employees can participate has tremendous upside. Even the humble posted comment on a blog with relevance with your industry represents a form of content marketing. Maybe your company culture or the nature of your business makes it impossible to turn loose your entire employee base. No problem. Just train a subset of employees. The point is, you can scale your social footprint without a major spend.
  • Integrate Writing Talent into One Pool: Writing talent tends to get siloed across companies by function: PR, digital, HR, executive comms, marcom, social, events, field support, etc. I recognize each function has unique requirements. Still, I think there’s logic in establishing a content bureau with the output feeding the various communication channels.
  • Team with Other Ecosystem Players: At its best, content marketing teaches. Why is a teacher from a university more credible than a teacher from a company? It’s about the perception of objectivity. Teachers help you. Companies sell you. By aligning your company with other players in your ecosystem or even competitors, the effort is perceived as more educational. A couple years ago Steve Farnsworth organized the 4/4/4 series in which four communicators, Todd Defren, Paul Roberts, Steve and I, crafted posts on four different questions (independent of each other) spread over four weeks. I learned a ton from the lift that came from this initiative.

  • Design a Content Marketing Campaign for One Prospect: In the B2B world where one customer win can be worth big money, you can rationalize tailoring a content marketing campaign to a single prospect. Let’s say your company’s product has been short-listed at IBM. The buyers and influencers at IBM will inevitably come to your website and maybe the LinkedIn profiles of those involved from your company. Why not refine this content to play into IBM’s decision-making criteria? It could even make sense to build a micro site that’s open to the world, but truly constructed with IBM in mind. You could implement a PPC component based on how the IBM decision makers would search on the topic, bringing them to a landing page, again written with IBM in mind.

I welcome hearing your ideas for experimentation (or perhaps pioneering efforts already underway).



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Ten Unfiltered Takes on “Tech Journalism is Broken”

business storytelling techniques - broken gate

In a world where anyone can conjure a digital pulpit for storytelling, the credibility that comes from third-party media coverage still counts.

Communicators can benefit from studying journalism with sites such as Nieman Labs and Poynter offering open windows.

It also doesn’t hurt to take a periodic look behind the curtain.

For example, the post “Tech Journalism is Broken”  showed up lamenting the regurtitation that passes for journalism in the technology sector.

It triggered water-cooler dialogue on Hacker News.

After raking the content, here’s a cross section of comments, opinions and snipes:

  • A lot of journalism today consists of regurgitating press releases rather than actually reporting on issues. And a lot of tech journalists have journalism qualifications but no tech gone are the pioneering days when the magazines found it easier to pick up techies and give them the basic training in journalism to communicate what they understood.
  • Some sources – for example, anandtech.com – get pretty close to the old-school hardcore reporting from time to time. Others actually cover industry movements from an informed perspective. But the drive to get eyeballs on ads is inimical to insight; it encourages facile, superficial, and above all speedy publication with a smattering of titillating headlines to draw the readers in. And it does us all a huge disservice.
  • I’m speaking for myself and not from either company. But I can tell you though everyone in the industry is aware of the problem and trying to get away from re-writing to produce more original content.
  • The problem, as I see it, is that volume drives most online publishing. Making money depends on having updates throughout the day. That means every writer needs to post something every day –usually more than one thing a day.
  • Even though most of these quick hit stories don’t get many pageviews individually, they add up, and occasionally even a quicky will become a “blockbuster” that gets a huge number of pageviews. Original stories get a more consistently high number of hits, but they take much longer to produce.
  • I think you have a false nostalgia for what old school tech reporting was. Before web publishing and blogs, many tech magazines were nothing more than press releases and a couple of opinion pieces stapled together. It was trade press, not journalism … At least today we have viable independent sources who can build an audience without giving a crap about access or offending PR people.
  • There was a time when it wasnt easy for regular folks to find press releases and announcements, so there were all these magazines marketed to IT pros and tech executives that just regurgitated marketing materials, and that could be perceived as being a valuable service. Of course, some of the websites still do that :-) But you really need to add original reporting or analysis today to stand out.
  • Ninety percent of everything is crap. [1] Thats a bad starting point. Add to this the fact that free publications on the web have a strong incentive to maximize their income via ads, and what you get is a crap-fest of sensationalism. Good tech journalism exists, but it’s somewhat rare and sorting through the crap to find it is rather fatiguing. Its also unlikely to show up on TechCrunch.
  • It’s true there’s a lot of crap out there, but this has always been true in the journalism world. And it’s true that many sites have dubious practices that are 100% for reasons that don’t matter to readers, like advertising and SEO. But is that the journalist’s fault – or the system’s?
  • I speak to editors and writers regularly as part of my work at Parse.ly, and many of them are extremely worried about being “dinged by Google”. They also hire experts who read the tea leaves on declarations from Matt Cutts and the Google search team, hoping to come up with a strategy that will make Google treat their site as one of several “blessed” domains.

The upshot –

Journalists don’t enjoy being ruled by the SEO gods.

Journalists don’t enjoy PR foisting lame news releases on them as fodder for stories.

Journalists do enjoy the process of “discovery” in writing a story with original insight.

Not exactly ground-breaking analysis, but there’s something to be said for reading it in their own words.



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10 Tips on Storytelling Techniques from Novelists.

Business communicators can learn from novelists and their storytelling techniques.

I’ve always been partial to the Kurt Vonnegut advice:

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

It’s never easy for a company to reveal “awful things,” but when they do, they frame a story with humanity and one that cultivates an emotional connection with the audience.

The Guardian recently ran a piece in which they asked a number of novelists and writers for tips on their craft. With a hat tip to the Guardian for handling the heavy lifting, I’ve culled their content for my Top 10 list:

1. Elmore Leonard

Storytelling Techniques in book - Elmore Leonard

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
2. Diana Athill

Storytelling Techniques in book - Diana Athill

“You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead.”

Note: Some of us do the beady-eye thing better than others.

3. Roddy Doyle

Storytelling Techniques in book - Roddy Doyle

“Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg ‘horse’, ‘ran’, ‘said’.”
4. Neil Gaiman

Storytelling Techniques in book - Neil Gaiman

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
5. PD James

Storytelling Techniques in book - PD James

“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”

Note: Now that’s a scary thought: how does one avoid bad writing? If only Outlook would filter out emails that don’t make the grade.

6. Hilary Mantel

Storytelling Techniques in book - Hilary Mantel

“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”
7. Andrew Motion

Storytelling Techniques in book - Andrew Motion

“Think with your senses as well as your brain.”
8. Sarah Waters

Storytelling Techniques in book - Sarah Waters

“Don’t overwrite. Avoid the redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs.”
9. Will Self

Storytelling Techniques in book - Will Self

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.”

Note: Will is old school. Yes, you can capture the idea on a smartphone.

10. Jeanette Winterson

Storytelling Techniques in book - Jeanette Winterson

“Don’t hold on to poor work. If it was bad when it went in the drawer it will be just as bad when it comes out.”


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Companies Ignore One of the Simplest Ways to Express a Public Viewpoint

What if I told you there’s an easy way to gain visibility in many media properties with relevance to your company, even mainstream publications?

You don’t need to exhaust time pitching your story to a journalist who decides whether it’s a “go” or a “no go.”

In fact, you completely control the storytelling even though it sits on “earned media.”

For such a proposition, most companies would jump at the opportunity to sign up.

Yet, the humble posted comment gets little respect in corporate corridors.

In a sense, the posted comment falls between a tweet and a blog post. You have more real estate than 140 characters to express your POV. Yet, you don’t have the burden of developing a full-blown post.

At its best, the posted comment offers a platform for thought leadership.

It also gets the attention of the journalist or blogger, often engaging the influencer in dialogue.

And oh BTW, there’s even an SEO play here in generating a backlink (unless the property has implemented the nofollow code).

Maybe it sounds too good, so how can it possible have value?

Of course, you need to target the right media properties that facilitate intelligent discourse in the posted comments section.

As general rule of thumb, many online properties covering the consumer electronics space don’t exactly cultivate such an environment. You can see an example of this from a recent Engadget story on Facebook’s first major ad:

Facebook business storytelling public relations

Not exactly words that advance the conversation.

On the other end of the spectrum, Mark Schaefer has built a community for marketeers with his blog earning a place on Ad Age’s “Power 150.” He recently wrote about the challenge for marketing execs to keep up with all the changes in the digital world. You can see my posted comment and the exchange with Mark.

blog posted comments - business storytelling public relations

The point is, whether your business involves chips for mobile phones, baking cupcakes, or the business of communications, there are media properties where a cogent posted comment showcases thought leadership and reaches a relevant audience.

I’m convinced that the clout from reader comments will only grow over time as publications experiment with ways – gamification being one of them – to elevate the most compelling perspectives.

If you’ve gone down this road, I’d love to hear your input on how it worked (or didn’t).



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