Getting Your Story Straight

Getting Your Story Straight

by Mike Bawden, partner, Bawden & Lareau Public Relations, LLC

Without fail, the complaint we hear most often from owners and managers of companies when we first sit down with them is that people “just don’t get it” when it comes to understanding what they’re brand has to offer or why they do what they do. It’s a complaint that encompasses almost every critical audience a brand touches: customers, the media, business partners and even employees.

It’s frustrating to a person who’s charged with the responsibility of making a brand or business successful. They spend nearly every waking moment thinking about how and why what they do is special – only to have it misunderstood, or worse yet, not even heard.

This failure to communicate can feel like a personal failing.

But it doesn’t need to. The failure most business owners and managers experience when it comes to driving their “unique selling proposition” into the hearts and minds of the people who matter most to their success is often tied to a lack of understanding of what it will take to make a crucial connection between the values of their brand to the needs, wants and concerns of their audience.

And in the rare instance when they do manage to make a connection, these same “brand advocates” often contradict themselves the next time they have an opportunity to be heard again.

In the world of public relations and branded storytelling, we refer to this problem as one of “message discipline” and it boils down to two things:

  1. Knowing your key messages and
  2. Knowing why those messages matter.

Creating Key Messages
One of the first things we do in a new client relationship is conduct a full-scale “communications audit” – this is a comprehensive look at all of the client-facing, media-facing and employee-facing correspondence, collateral and commercial messages we can get our hands on from the past 12-24 months. Each piece is read and reviewed to discern the purpose of the piece, the main message(s) that are most important and the supporting message(s) used to illustrate/bolster the main message(s). Notes are also made regarding the method of communication, the production values, use of color, identity characteristics, etc. as part of a larger survey of communications continuity and “short hand” – tools, trends, icons and art that help reinforce key messages or brand values.

The last thing that’s noted about each piece of communications reviewed in the audit are the “values” associated with or attributed to the company or brand. Many times, these “values” are absolute distillations of messages built into the piece. Sometimes, the “values” are more nuanced than that.

In addition to the communications audit, we may also interview one or more key stakeholders – corporate leaders or communications personnel who may be involved in the creation of the messages being audited. The purpose of these interviews is to identify possible disconnects between stated missions, values or messages and what’s actually been published/produced on behalf of the company or brand.

Finally, we’ll often take a look at the history of the company or brand to see if there are any larger, cultural influences at work in the communication. Evaluating the importance or relevance of these cultural influences helps us strike the right tone when it comes to crafting key messages for a client and can help overcome objections to adopting a stricter set of key messages – in essence, a “script” for corporate/brand leadership to follow when they are talking to employees, customers, business partners or the media.

Key Messages are not created in a vacuum, though. We will often draft a set of key messages and review those with management (and sometimes customers or employees) to make sure they accurately reflect who the brand really is as well as what it wants to become. By the time we’re done, the key messages created for a brand usually summarize what the client wants people to “get” about their company or brand.

But that’s only half the battle.

Making Messages Relevant
One of the byproducts of conducting a comprehensive communications audit is the identification of important audiences: groups of people who can make a difference to the success or failure of a company or brand. We will often identify sub-groups inside of broader audiences related to demographic or psychographic preferences. Sometimes those sub-groups will be identified by geographic location or job responsibility. Sometimes by media channel or cultural stereotype.

What’s important here is to identify what’s important to these different sub-groups and how the company/brand addresses those differences. This is the essence of relevance – and it’s how you make sure people “get” what the brand is about.

At BLPR, we have a tool we use that helps us craft messages that are relevant to every audience. It’s called a “Message Matrix” and it re-states each key message for a brand in a way that is relevant and realistic for each sub-audience. This can mean, at times, that we’ll re-state each key message for a brand a dozen different ways (or more). It also means that some key messages are merely repeated from one audience to another.

What’s important is that there is thought, consideration and discipline in the process that ensures messages are relevant when they’re delivered. That way, they hit and make an impact rather than miss or be misunderstood.

The end result is a handbook that gives every person speaking on behalf of the brand a clear set of messages and guidelines on how to deliver those messages to any audience. Key points don’t get lost and, more importantly, are reinforced over time so often that people start to “get” what makes the company or brand special.

And once your story is straight, you can be heard in ways you’ve never thought possible.

But more on that later.

Communications Audit Request

Is your brand a social media success?

Is your brand a social media success?

How important is social media to the success of your brand? For many businesses, the importance of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or any of the other of dozen (or so) of the most popular social media networks is only vaguely understood by business owners and managers. Very often, we find responsibility for managing a company’s social media account(s) assigned to one of “the young people” in the office who are assumed to understand “how it all works.”

The use of the internet is beneficial of course when it comes to building your social media presence, but let’s not forget the method of traditional methods of spreading the message. This is what companies like Spectra Integration can help you with if this is the route you want to go down, as well as using the internet to help promote your business.

And while a young person who has spent the last four or five years of their life on social media may know how to create a post, share a pin or or respond to a tweet, they are often “in the dark” when it comes to knowing how their company’s presence on social media might be beneficial. Everything counts when it comes to social media. Even making sure images being uploaded are correctly resized counts. You can try it here if you are struggling with this.

That’s trouble. And if it sounds remotely familiar, it’s double-trouble.

So here’s a quick run-down of the things we encourage clients to think about when it comes to using social media to build their brand. Sometimes they’re able to do these things using existing, in-house talent. Sometimes we pick up some of the slack. Every now and then, we wind up doing most of the work. It all depends on the client and their commitment to engaging, two-way conversations with the people who matter most to their long-term success.

Have a mission in mind
Probably the largest, single mistake we see clients make is they have no purpose for being on social media other than to tell people their on social media. In fact, most business and brand pages on Facebook are testimony to the fact that most business and brand managers don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to being on Facebook. Twitter feeds that languish with only a few followers and a post every month or two are another example of a marketing initiative with little-to-know forethought behind it.

Given the ability of social media posts to attract new eyeballs to your brand’s unique stories and, eventually, drive traffic to your website, it’s a wonder why businesses aren’t more serious about their social media efforts. In fact, for B2B marketers, social media can improve close rates with new prospects dramatically.

This past year, we just finished an analysis of a social media program we’ve been running for a healthcare client for the past four years. In that time, we’ve been able to stimulate 20-24% increases in web traffic each year over the previous year. That’s the power of great storytelling on social media (and a great brand, too).

But the failure to focus in on a mission for a brand’s social media strategy is just the first of many mistakes companies make – and that’s because not all social media channels are created equal.

Choose the right channel
It’s important for clients to have a complete understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the different social media networks they should be considering for their brands. This post, from UK-based Vertical Leap, provides a nice rundown of the various pros and cons to consider for each network.

One of the things we recommend clients consider is the intended “audience” of each social network initiative. In fact, we will sometimes suggest the client set up multiple pages on a platform like Facebook and that each page have a different intended audience and, at times, different strategic focus.

Choosing one social media channel over another can also drive how content is produced (as well as distributed). There are some basic rules when it comes to social media content, though, and chief among them …

Keep it fresh and focused
Good social media content is fresh (this means you can’t just continue to re-post information off your website – unless it’s recent blog posts) and focused to the desired audience and intended strategy for the page (or account). On many platforms, this means your content needs to be much more visual and, if possible, utilize video.

Jeff Bullas does a great job of explaining the importance of using highly visual content on social media. According to Bullas, social media content is “high quality” if it can meet the following criteria:

Is it informative?
Is it shareable?
Is it actionable?
Is it relevant?

In other words, in order for content to be of value to your social media audience, it needs to be interesting and important to them – and it needs to beg for a response. This is, at its essence, what “engagement” is all about.

But this isn’t a new idea. In fact, those who knew how to “engage” their audience – whether it was a prospective customer of a future father-in-law – had a leg up on their competition.

“A gossip is one who talks to you about others, a bore is one who talks to you about himself, and a brilliant conversationalist is one who talks to you about yourself.”

Be a brilliant conversationalist
I love this quote from the actress Lisa Kirk because, in a nutshell, it sums up where we must focus our conversation if we’re going to be a success on social media. Too many companies re-publish their web content on social media and then wonder why they don’t see their audience continue to grow or their posts “go viral.” These businesses are being boorish – they’re too busy talking about themselves to be really interesting.

Our experience in social media (specifically Facebook) started by asking folks who make jams, jellies and pickled vegetables to share their favorite memories about time spent in the kitchen. We saw more and more people join in on the conversation and, before long, we had thousands of people following our client’s page. Similarly, when we commented on and shared other people’s posts on Twitter, our follower counts increased dramatically.

Talking to our fans, friends and followers about themselves is a great way to get the conversation going. And by doing that – by being a good and gracious host – we’re actually building equity in the relationship these folks have with our brand.

Focus on engagement
But it’s not just asking questions and getting folks to talk about themselves – it’s answering questions too. By promptly answering questions when their asked, a company is not only providing important information when it is most relevant, it’s demonstrating that it’s listening (and that means paying attention). The respect given is very often reciprocated over and over again by gracious customers – who go from being pleased with a product to sold on the brand.

There are a number of ways to engage people once their sold on your brand. They’ll visit your website, test your new products, give you opinions about new ideas and share information with their friends. We often use contests to drive engagement on specific social media channels – and the contests frequently require people to sign up for e-newsletters, answer questions that might help us fine-tune an aspect of our on-going marketing or some other exchange of information and attention. With the rise of social media, it has meant that a lot of companies are able to connect easier to their customers. Examples of Digital Transformation will show you the many advantages (and more) that social media has had on the technological world and businesses.

One piece of information we often ask of our social media friends and fans is the identity of other social media accounts they may be following. And that’s with good reason.

Invite others to your party
Once we have an idea of other social media pages/accounts that may be competitive or complimentary to our clients, we often look on those pages for content we might be able to share with our friends, fans and followers. Additionally, we offer our content to those pages – all in an effort to mutually build each other’s circulation.

You’ll be surprised as to how receptive other social media managers are to offers of cooperation and joint-promotion.

Measure results
You don’t know where to improve if you don’t take time out to see where you’ve been. Spending a little bit of time to understand the metrics available from social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter is time well spent.

Not only should you be looking at general trend data like growth of friends or followers – but you need to see what kind of posts are out-performing the rest and then find a way to continue generating that kind of content. At BLPR, we evaluate our social media performance on an account-by-account basis every month.

Being a social media success isn’t easy – but it is do-able. It takes discpiine and time. But there is a way to win the social media game if you have the patience to play it.

The Essentials of Public Relations

The Essentials of Public Relations

It’s no secret that both public relations (PR) and advertising offer unique benefits when employed correctly. And, when working together, the two practices can build awareness, boost brand value and drive sales. Some of our most successful campaigns stem from a strong relationship between our PR team and advertising agency partners.

To contrast the two, PR earns media coverage through strategic outreach to journalists while advertising is a controlled message placed in paid-for space. Both practices work to influence the behavior of consumers by swaying opinion, calling consumers to action, etc., but the tactics used to gain results and meet goals couldn’t be more different.

Unfortunately, PR tends to be overlooked during the planning stages of some marketing campaigns because many don’t fully understand the benefits. And, if PR isn’t overlooked all together, many times key decision makers don’t quite understand how it works or worse, don’t understand how to measure a PR campaign’s success (common measurements include impressions, number of placements and types of placements).

The primary goal of any PR campaign, no matter how large or small, is to build relationships. Through these relationships, we’re able to secure stories, build momentum and create opportunities for brands, be it a person, organization, product or service. Before launching any PR campaign, it’s important to outline measures of success to fairly evaluate the benefits as well as manage expectations both internally and externally.

So what sort of benefits can you expect from a well-planned PR campaign?

Affordability. When compared to advertising, PR is an economical way to stay in front of consumers and works to build brand loyalty. With PR you are paying for time required and minimal out-of-pocket expenses in order for your agency to develop relationships on your company’s behalf. With advertising, not only do you need to pay your agency for the time required to create the ads, but you’re also paying the media outlets to run your ads.

Credibility. PR professionals pitch story ideas to reporters and because the journalist vets the story first, it becomes more unbiased than advertising. In contrast, consumers generally understand that an advertisement means that the company provided the messages and is therefore approached with some level of skepticism. News stories aren’t typically viewed with as much cynicism.

Visibility. By implementing a PR campaign, you can affordably increase search engine optimization (SEO) and organic results as well as repeat exposure for the same story through media coverage. You can achieve similar results through advertising, but because that visibility is paid for, the costs are great.

Value. PR results are tied to placements secured, conversations started. The value comes from those third-party endorsements that we work to nurture and develop on a client’s behalf.

Relationships. PR builds relationships with journalists and consumers on behalf of your organization by sharing information. Further, PR creates loyalty through dialogue that take place via tactics such as social media and events.

Details. Because PR coverage typically results in more space and time for information sharing, consumers are exposed to more details about your company’s product or service. This, coupled with established credibility, allows consumers to freely take in information from unbiased sources to ultimately make an educated decision for themselves. PR and advertising can easily complement one another by pushing the same key messages via varied channels.

Legitimacy. By launching a PR campaign, you’ll see regular media exposure that typically results in enhancing and legitimizing your reputation. As consumers see increased, positive media coverage, they’ll begin to look at your brand in a favorable light.

Position. Through PR, you can tell your side of the story and be seen as an expert within your industry. By working with a PR firm, they can train you on how to work with journalists, ultimately assisting you with interview styles, key messages and on-camera confidence. Once established as an expert, many times journalists will seek to interview you on other industry topics as new opportunities arise, allowing you to further solidify your authority.

Timely. Because fewer people are involved in developing and pitching a story in PR, advertising campaigns typically require more time to plan and execute. Messages secured via PR, more times than not, will appear much faster when compared to advertising. In addition, PR and advertising can work together to prolong messages presented in the media

When used correctly, PR can be a valuable marketing tool benefiting your brand position and bottom line. PR is not the only answer to a strong marketing campaign, but it is an important practice to employ in order to build strong brand credibility, legitimacy and value.

On Crafting A Brand

On Crafting A Brand

I’ve written quite a bit about how to create brand equity. But in reviewing all of those missives, I find I continue to come back to the one essential truth on which I’ve built my professional career:

“Brand equity is built through a series of promises made and promises kept.”

It’s that simple. Really.

It’s the same rule that applies to any relationship whether between parent and child, spouses, or employer and employee. Human beings tend to infuse life and meaning into everything they interact with, and that includes brands. So people really do have relationships with brands – and how those brands are handled by their stewards makes a difference in how much those relationships mean to the people who use them.

On Brand Crafting
So the first part of the process is easy to understand. It’s the “promise making” part. What we tell people. The images we evoke. The jingles. The jokes. The jeers.

Crafting a brand shouldn’t happen by accident. If you own and have responsibility for a brand, you need to be deliberate in how you position that brand and can clearly identify what kind of valuable contribution that brand brings to the people who matter most to it.

Think about it as having a “point of view” and a “proposition” for your brand.

This is your quest for “relevance” in the eyes of the customers, employees and partners you’re trying to form relationships with. If you can’t understand how or why your brand should matter to them, don’t even think of wasting money on the “shouting from the rooftops” part of this job.

For many brands, a “point of view” reflects the culture and values of the organization. It’s your approach to solving a problem, distilled down into a bottle, a service, a platform or a “mission” that drives your enterprise. Sometimes, a brand’s point of view doesn’t appeal to a prospective customer – and that’s okay. It’s all part of the social selection process people go through when they try to sift through the millions of messages and impressions that come at them relentlessly every day.

But you’re missing opportunities (and business) if the way you communicate your point of view is muddled in the messaging. Simply put, people will skip over messages delivered from a point of view they don’t understand.

You won’t even get a hearing, let alone a fair trial.

Once you’ve got a clear point of view on your brand, though, you’re work isn’t through. Understanding who you are and what you stand for is only part of the job. You need to do even more work getting to know and understand the people who are most important to your brand’s success: your customers, employees and business partners.

That takes time and effort (and usually money), but it can yield insights into the needs, aspirations, fears and concerns of those people with whom you want to do business.

And that’s a good thing.

You can use that information to identify opportunities where your interests and point of view overlaps with their needs and wants. With a little creative thought, you should be able to spot opportunities for making promises that will really mean something. Promises with real value.

Those are your brand’s propositions – and they need to be clearly and concisely explained, expertly packaged and delivered right to the people who need to hear them.

What you do with your brand after its promises are heard and understood is the subject of my next post on Brand Building.