Brands Produce Content — Whether You Like It Or Not

It’s been a while since an article really riled me up. I’ve been wondering when something would come along to stir up some angst.

Enter this ridiculous article on branded content written by Jonathan Salem Baskin for Ad Age’s CMO Strategy newsletter.

I’ll preface it by saying that Mr. Baskin is a global branding expert and has written some solid pieces for Ad Age that I like. Yet on this particular topic, he is way off base. It’s like hiring Charlie Sheen to teach a class on stability — it doesn’t make sense (now Mr. Baskin and I are tied at one apiece for in-article Sheen references).

Despite the fact that brands have been producing solid, credible content for years (which I’ve been writing in this blog about for years) — and that experienced journalists are leaving reputable media to cross over and create content for brands – it’s Baskin’s assertion that, by default, branded content is untrue. Apparently, that means all those reputable editors flocking to the brand side check all their credibility and integrity at the door. Apparently that means no brand can tell a story that’s credible, inform customers about truthful market aspects in a creative way, or create factual market context that a product or service fits into – without it being inherently untrue.

That’s ridiculous.

Take a good, long look at his statements about branded content below.

Branding is created by people who are speaking on behalf of the business operations that pay for their efforts. Brands are lenses, so the stuff you create is biased by purposed and practice, which isn’t a crime but certainly isn’t synonymous with news or truth…It’s people talking for the brand, and there’s no mechanism within your published content that makes it true.

Aaaahhhh, but there is. The same “open communities” he mentions in the same very article are the ultimate purveyors of truth. First-hand experience, real-time feedback, customers sharing product information, and access to people who represent brands has never been easier. I argue that never, ever before has it been easier to identify and distinguish truth from untruth – contrary to the very point Baskin makes when he says:

Open online communities are to truth what the Wild West was to justice.

Again, a ridiculous assertion. Sure, opinions and untruth are easier to find online than a fifth of vodka in Charlie Sheen’s nightstand (now I’m ahead 2 to 1). Yet guess what? So is truth. As a consumer of information, one always has to apply a personal filter to distinguish qualified source from unqualified, valid opinion from meaningless rant, veiled advertising from valuable insights. The same way social media and online communities have granted a megaphone to bias and untruth, they’ve also empowered a new era of reality and truth to spring forward from the first-hand perspective of people living it. We now have access to more people who know the truth on any topic better than anyone.

In many cases, Mr. Baskin, that is more valuable than any journalist writing about it. Like it or not.

Also like it or not is the fact that many people do want to talk “with” brands. They want to consume information and judge for themselves what’s true and untrue. Not everyone wants a journalist or blogger to sift through the facts and tell them what’s true. Are you trying to tell me that Tony Hsieh isn’t credible because he represents a brand? Or Richard Branson? Or my friend Tim Andrews at ASI, who transformed a company and a whole industry partially by telling truths and granting access that hadn’t been done before. These are executives who tell stories, share information, provide opinions, and grant access for customers to talk “with” them. Should everything they say inherently be labeled as untrue simply because they represent brands?

One more time I add, ridiculous.

There may not be a mechanism within published content that makes it true, yet there’s no mechanism that makes it untrue either. That’s a decision that customers and their communities can charge ahead make on their own now.

Yet brands still have a valid, credible place and a part in the discussion (when conducted credibly and correctly, of course).

Bad Marketing & Service Examples, March 2011 Edition

Well, it’s safe to say that no matter what the economy is like, what sales are like, or what the performance of your campaign is like, there’s always room to do better.

For some, there’s more room than others.

Enter my two examples from today on some really poor practices in marketing and customer service. Let’s take a good, long look at what NOT to do for a moment. As I said in a recent post, the economic rebound and business growth has some companies at a point where their capability to deliver effective customer service is lacking, and it ends up hurting their future.

ManagementJobs.net
The first entry is a horrendous email from someplace called managementjobs.net. Now, you wouldn’t think the email below is actually from them. The From line is from a “jobsalertnow.com” domain, while the physical address in the email lists CareerPlannerNow in Columbus, OH. Good luck trying to find either one of those.

First let’s talk about how awful the email is. No context, no identification, no reason to click. I could go on, but it’s not even needed, you can see for yourself. Who’s gonna click on that email?

Really impactful, right? Um, wrong.

Well, I clicked, just for fun and for the purposes of this post — which, mind you, probably dooms me to a life of spam from these shady folks. You arrive at this lovely fly-by-night website called managementjobs.net. Seriously, is anyone using this site to search for a job? Do they really get enough traffic using shady email marketing tactics? Anyway, they have a blog — which is amazing. Are you going to take advice from someone who has to dupe you to actually get you to their website?

Finally, when you hit the opt-out screen, this is what you see below.

Here's when you get scared, as you ask "Who the hell are these people?"

Enough said about these folks. No clue what they’re doing. Actually they’re probably intentionally spamming people at best, and potentially pursuing much more criminal activities at worst. Not the way you want to market anything to your customers in any way.

Foursquare
The next entry comes from my lovely friends at Foursquare, who are about as responsive to customers as the chair you’re sitting in or the desk you’re leaning on. Actually, worse — because the chair will lean back, turn and do other things you ask it to, and the desk actually works as advertised.

The folks over at Foursquare — you know, that darling of media and market value — have a little issue being responsive to customers. As in NEVER responding to anyone. That is why I was surprised to get the email below in reply to one of my several performance issues with their performance-challenged-yet-popular app. I’m thought to myself “maybe they turned over a new leaf” when I saw the email appear in my inbox.

Well, we aren’t really that lucky just yet. The email itself leaves alot to be desired. Alot of fluffy copy and irrelevant links, no direct answer to anything resembling my question.

Heavy on irrelevant copy, light on relevant answers

Howver, let’s talk about the bigger picture here. When you scroll to the bottom of the email, you can see the original date that I submitted my initial question.

Thanks for the response, 11 months later!

Yes, that is correct — 11 months after the fact, Foursquare blessed me with a response. What adds to the hilarity in that is this subsequent dialogue:

  • Me: Ssssooooo, lemme get this straight. You’re replying to one of my support emails…..a YEAR later? Well, 11 months, technically. Are you serious?
  • Foursquare: I know it’s been a long time, but we thought it was better to respond late than never to respond at all! 🙂

At least they used a smiley face. Yet, kinda sad that they think waiting 11 months to respond to customers is funny. Also sad that a prominent brand has to be on my bad examples list.

Needless to say, what both of these companies do is not the way to treat your customers. In 2011, please make it a point to charge ahead with better customer service and marketing than these examples illustrate.

If you don’t, be aware that your customers are empowered with an arsenal of social tools, just like this blog. And they will take their story to their social networks.

It just doesn’t pay to be shady or be careless in responding to your customers any more.

Economic Rebound = Customer Service Falloff

It’s funny how “things are better” amounts to things actually being worse when it comes to customer service.

It makes sense, though, and with a good, long look you can already see it happening in businesses of all sizes and industries.

There are some companies that are always just historically bad when it comes to customer service – AT&T, Excite, the electric company, (United Illuminating here in CT…awful), the cable company. Add in your own favorites (or un-favorites, if you will). Yet combine a rebounding economy with a make-my-losses-back mentality and a shortage of resources and people, and you have historically bad customer service across the board.

It starts at the local level, with service companies from landscapers to oil companies to snow removers. These were services that a lot of out-of-work and cost-conscious consumers eliminated or scaled back on during the tough times of the past few years. Now that things are doing better economically, some consumers are opening the wallets back up, and those companies are more than happy to take the work again. And on the surface, certainly taking on alot of customers helps these companies bounce back from revenue and sales declines of the past few years. Yet for many of them, going for quantity over quality means delivering subpar service to a wider group of customers — including those who may have stuck by them during the tough times. Ultimately that’s not good business.

These are also businesses who haven’t invested in technology or equipment or infrastructure during the down times, so now they’re taking on added customer volume without the resources in place to provide good service. The first symptom is long wait times on the phone and for service delivery. Online contact doesn’t make it easier either, as someone already stretched too thin manages the online channel. Then, when service is delivered it’s frequently subpar since stretched resources are trying to service more customers in the same amount of time. That extra care they gave you as a loyal customer during the hard times is gone. And new customers immediately have low expectations from less-than-optimal service delivery.

The same goes for big brands. Many of them outsourced customer service overseas, for example, and are now getting hammered by higher volume hitting under-trained staff. And many of them still use social media as a mouthpiece, rather than a means for engagement.

None of this leads to long-term success – customers are unhappy from Day One, so it makes your business a commodity. There’s no loyalty based on price, experience, brand…nothing.

My recommendation? As a business that depends on customers, you have to invest in things that make your business unique. And while tough economic times make it difficult to invest in capital costs – like technology – it shouldn’t prevent you from charging ahead with low-cost investments in training, creativity, and other things that make businesses succeed. And ultimately, it means delivering consistent, high-quality service and experience. If that means taking on less customers now so you can build stronger relationships in the long term, that’s a cost of doing business. You have to realize that if take on too much and deliver bad service, you’re going to spend more on sales and marketing costs in the long run trying to replace customers who leave.

Stay tuned for my next post, which outlines three things you can do to avoid these pitfalls.

I hope this post trickles down to the snow removal service that takes care of (or doesn’t) my building. If you do quick, hasty, low-quality work because you’re trying to make it to as many customers as you can, you’re only pulling a snow job on yourself.

How to Reform an Enewsletter

There’s so much to stay up-to-speed on nowadays, it’s easy to get passed by.

That’s what happened to me at one point last year, when one of my email campaigns got stale real quick.

Something can always fall through the cracks, even if you put alot of time into planning and strategy. So when you’re stuck in a bad email situation, get refocused quickly, take a good, long look at best practices, and make some changes to your email program to turn a bad campaign into an opportunity to re-engage customers quickly.

I just wrote the following article for Chief Marketer (access the original piece right here) that summarizes how I switched up the sitch and turned that stale campaign into a winner again.

Healthcare Enewsletter Reform Perks Up Response

With email marketing, there’s more to stay up-to-date on than ever before: integrating social and email, reactivating inactive customers, personalization, accounting for mobile users, deliverability challenges, testing, using content and relevance to drive engagement. Add all that to the day-to-day tasks of your job, and it’s inevitable that something may fall through the cracks.

That was the case for one healthcare client I worked with. I certainly spent a lot of time on testing and solid planning, yet a period came up where work volume skyrocketed and I lost sight of performance on one of our email campaigns. So what had started out as a great member newsletter turned into a stale email that lacked engaging content, with increasingly poor metrics as a result.

I needed to change the system and implement some real healthcare reform to get this email program back on track. Three simple steps led the way:

  • reducing frequency
  • investing saved time in creating better content
  • refreshing the template to align with best practices.

The problem
The client was Massachusetts General Hospital, for whom I managed marketing strategy for its live and online educational programs directed to clinicians in mental health, oncology, and other specialties. As I mentioned in an earlier article, a big challenge in the healthcare market is the huge number of critically important emails that healthcare professionals receive every day—emails about patients, medications, procedures, new research, all of which take priority over marketing messages. And then, of course, healthcare providers are also affected by the other issues regarding email marketing, such as inbox clutter and deliverability.

Last year, a bimonthly newsletter for the Massachusetts General Hospital Academy went from average open and click rates in January (based on all my email campaigns for that client) to open rates of less than 5% in August and click rates of…well, you don’t want to know. It was that low.

Part of the reason was content. During that busy time I mentioned, there was less time to dedicate to content development for a biweekly newsletter. So copy blocks became longer, the content became less informative, and some of the articles and announcements mirrored what we sent in our more marketing-oriented emails. Without unique content, the newsletter no longer compelled recipients to open or read it.

Mass General Newsletter Before

Mass General newsletter before reform

The solution
The first step in the solution was to pull back on frequency from bimonthly to monthly. We did have other email campaigns, and the target audience receives all those other important emails I mentioned above. So I believed that sending fewer emails—at our highest-performing send times—would create a greater impact and help our emails stand out amid the clutter.

The second step was to take the time saved by sending fewer emails and invest it in developing better content. With more time I was able to better leverage content that was already created by the hospital’s various service lines and treatment centers. Because it hadn’t appeared in the other newsletters that subscribers received, this content was new to them.

Indeed, you don’t have to create all-new content for your newsletters. It can be just as valuable to link to important content already out there that your audience may not know about or to provide your own analysis on important news and research.

Third, I had someone on my internal marketing team redesign our HTML template. We moved away from the image-heavy header area to a small, HTML text header with a right-column logo as the only image. We include “Massachusetts General Hospital Academy” in the from line, because it lifts open rates, so we no longer needed the logo to occupy valuable upper-left real estate.

We added a brief table of contents in the top 300 pixels that linked down to short copy blocks. The copy was written to entice clicks rather than tell too much of the story, and we used small images to liven up the template and create visual points of interest. We ensured that the images, however, would not damage the integrity of the layout if a recipient’s email client blocked them. We fit key links in an unobtrusive location opposite the table of contents and in the upper right, and added in a few profiles of key hospital thought leaders in the right column opposite the copy blocks.

Mass General Newsletter After

Mass General newsletter after reform

Overall the redesigned template was much easier to skim and engage with—and was exactly what the doctor ordered in terms of results. In just the first email, sent out in September, the open rate went up 13%. Further subject-line testing and content testing increased the open rate by 30% by the end of the year. Click rates also jumped significantly, and while they were certainly skewed toward the most interesting content, they were also spread out across the entire template, which clearly showed users were reading past the scroll.

Based on these results, when it comes to refreshing a stale campaign, here’s a prescription for the problem:

  • Consider decreasing volume, even if for a short time. Give your customers a minute to breathe. You’ll find that less is more when the message is right.
  • Make sure those fewer messages have better-quality content. Spend the extra time you have on creating relevance and personalization that matter.
  • Ensure your templates are optimized for today’s email clients and user habits. Rely less on images, use HTML text for key action points, optimize for the mobile channel, etc.
  • Provide numerous ways to engage, by leveraging interactivity, linking to video content, and integrating with social media, among other ways.
  • Sanitize your data. Subsequently we scrubbed out some long-inactive records that depressed metrics and messaged those users separately to reactivate them.

So don’t panic if you get distracted and your email campaign comes down with a case of bad metrics. Refresh your strategy, optimize your design and your approach to content, and in a very short time your emails will be healthy again.

Earn Clout with Social Influencers

Do you current acquisition campaigns include social influencers? They should.

Social media is lauded for its high engagement value, yet many marketers are struggling with how to measure it, never mind how to use it to move the needle on sales. Hell, many marketers and companies have yet to commit the time or the resources to leverage SoMe effectively for engagement — despite the benefits.

That’s why I love the great examples out there like this article on how the Sacramento Kings used Klout to tap into the power of social influencers. There are tons of articles out there that discuss all the reasons you have to use social — this blog alone offers up a bunch. Yet this article touches on the true viral power of brands tapping into social influencers who are capable of shaping behavior across their whole social networks.

Nothing like other people doing your job for you.

Think this approach has merits? Take a good, long look at it’s application on the micro-local level, where community-based doctors, restaurants and other local business could reach out to prominent local influencers — perhaps members of social programs, sports leagues or PTA boards. Give them a good experience or an offer, and the word spreads fast and drives local business as soon as those influencers tell their social networks about it via Facebook, Twitter or other means.

Think of it’s application to healthcare, where innovative academic centers and community practices could reach out to prominent patient advocates and community leaders. Work with those influencers to create events in the facilities and practices or host Twitter chats, and the social impact spreads to core consumers of healthcare services in those networks. Recent studies show a “graying” of social networks due to the huge number of older Americans flocking to them, and one of their most popular online activities is searching for and sharing healthcare information. One of my blog posts for Oncology Times discuss this phenomenon. So the opportunity is definitely there to make an impact among healthcare consumers with the right outreach to social influencers.

How do you identify and reach social influencers? Well, you can work with experts like Klout, or you can set up an effective social listening station of your own and begin to closely monitor and filter the conversation in your markets or areas of interest. Many tools out there set up those powerful filters that can be as granular as you need, and you can build your own dashboard to analyze and rank influencers. Radian6 and Alterian are two of the better products available, and the cost is not significant.

Need another example? During an online demo of Radian6, I tweeted about it. Less than 10 minutes later, I had a tweet back from Alterian acknowledging my interest in social listening software, with an offer to access information about their product. Now here I sit, virally spreading that experience and education. It’s a whole different and more meaningful way to influence customer behavior.

We’ll discuss more about social listening in an upcoming post, yet in the meantime I recommend you charge ahead and become more familiar with it starting right now.

Brands Use Content as a Marketing Tool

But you already know that brands use content as a marketing tool, because I’ve been talking about it since April 2009.

Kudos to David Carr and the New York Times for finally arriving to the party.

Carr just wrote this excellent article in the Times about luxury brands publishing content and downright getting into the media business. And it’s true, brands are creating content and using it to drive engagement across a variety of vertical markets, both B2C and B2B. They’re shifting dollars of out publishing ad spend to do it, and they’re delivering content in the form of print magazines, digital mags, blogs, content-rich websites, and more. Plus, they get better tangible metrics than publishers offer, because they drive traffic to their own content, URLs and places where they can track and analyze deeper.

Yet Carr’s article comes almost a full two years after I wrote a series of blog posts that described how marketers have a role in the future of content (the other two posts in the series are here and here…the second one even takes a journalist to task for not seeing the shift).

I think the mainstream media are finally starting to notice since, as Carr’s article highlights, some high-level journalists and content experts are making the leap to direct content on the brand side.

Andrea Linett, the former creative director of Lucky, has gone on to become eBay’s fashion creative director, while Melissa Biggs Bradley, the founding editor of Town and Country Travel for Hearst, is now the chief executive at the travel site Indagare. And many journalists who were pushed aside as publishing withered are now finding that brands in search of an audience are still interested in what they do.”

Well now that the Times says it, it must be true, right? So take a good, long look at what kind of content your customers consume, and charge ahead in terms of providing it to them in a way that creates engagement with your brands and products. I’m not saying you have to hire editors and build a media empire under your roof — but hired experts are clearly an effective way to do it. You also have other ways to create and provide content, like social media, whitepapers and even Twitter.

Once you make the leap to content provide and educator, you gain trust and credibility, and you gain an incredible amount of context that you can use to market your products/brands.

Implications of the “Do Not Track” Movement

Just when you were starting to figure it out online, leave it to potential legislation to ruin it.

Well, maybe not totally ruin it, but at least make it harder. That’s my take on the potential for FTC policy and future legislation on an Internet “Do Not Track” list. While I agree that consumers should have every right to raise their hand for privacy whenever they desire, I think it also raises the bar alot higher for marketers who don’t want to be covered by their customers’ “Do Not Track” blankets.

I’m hoping that policymakers take a good, long look at arguments like David Greene’s post on why the Do Not Track line of thinking may be misguided. While I like and agree with that line of thinking, the Do Not Track movement may have too much momentum to be stopped — Microsoft already announced that when Internet Explorer 9 is released in 2011 it will have a feature included that allows users to restrict sites from tracking them. In reality it’s just an enhancement to features already present in IE 8 and it requires some user effort to take full advantage of the feature, yet the big announcement by Microsoft (which some argue is just posturing to gain an edge) certainly added fuel to the fire.

Essentially, here’s what this functionality means for you as a marketer: Want to be able to track customer data? Then earn their trust with top-notch messaging, content and experience. Then maybe they’ll let you in.

The one sure thing is that if you don’t make an effort to earn trust, you certainly won’t be let in. So my recommendation is to address the issue now.

  • Start improving the quality of your messaging so it’s personalized and relevance-based.
  • Engage customers in dialogue that builds trust.
  • Set high standards for process integrity and data security.
  • Explain to customers what you do with their data and why it helps you help them.

Those proactive steps will help you charge ahead and become an oasis for customers in the desert of online trust.

Reduce Volume, Reinvest in Relevance

The following post is a re-post of an article recently published on Directmag.com, and you can read the original article on that website — which, by the way, is a great source for insights to improve your campaigns.

Rx for Ailing Email Response: Reduce Frequency

Certainly email is still one of the most productive and powerful tools in the marketer’s arsenal of tactics. Recent research shows there’s no falloff in usage even with the shift toward social networks; in fact, studies from Nielsen and others show an enhanced level of email usage among those with high participation in social media.

That said, some of the main challenges we face with email—volume, relevance, and engagement—become more problematic when people use email more. When a user is in his inbox all the time, it’s easy to get tired of senders, even trusted ones, who send too frequently. And marketers need to be diligent to ensure that their email messages and offers remain riveting and relevant in order to create engagement.

As a marketing director at Reed Medical Education, where I promote continuing education programs to healthcare professionals, I have the typical email issues to account for and test against: inbox clutter, frequency, deliverability, optimal send time, etc. There’s also an additional challenge: My recipients also receive a lot of messages that rank higher than mine—emails about patients, medications, procedures, new research, and countless other things that are critical to making people better.

This fall, when rolling out a campaign for our largest conference, focusing on mental health on behalf of Massachusetts General Hospital, I decided that less is more.

For the 2009 conference, during a six-month campaign we sent out 12 marketing emails plus four transactional emails based on actions, such as purchase confirmations. Most of the messages were in a standard HTML template we have for the brand, and two were text-only, personalized emails. Open rates were down to less than 5% across the board, and we barely hit our attendee goal.

In 2010 the goal was not only to exceed our attendee target but also to markedly improve our email metrics. A better campaign should deliver a better overall result, right? I decided to cut the number of emails we’d send for the campaign by 50%, down to six. In cluttered inboxes, I bet that fewer total messages from us would actually stand out more and give us more opens—and I knew that if we put extra time into developing a better message, the clicks would follow.

First we redesigned our HTML email template into a cleaner layout with shorter, punchier copy and highly visible calls to actions. For three of the emails, we focused on key deadlines to deliver time-sensitive, action-oriented messages.

For the other three emails, we crafted personal, text-only messages from key speakers and leaders of the conference. We segmented the campaign to our internal database based on purchase history (2009 attendees, pre-2009 attendees, never attended, etc.), and we customized the message based on that history. For last year’s attendees, we emphasized what was new in 2010. For those who had attended prior to 2009, we focused on why it was critical for them to come them back. And for those who had never attended, we highlighted key unique selling propositions and benefit-oriented messaging. And again, all versions were sent as a personal message from a key figure.

Also in these text emails, we linked to a five-minute video recorded with the chief of psychiatry at Mass General. He directly addressed some of the cost, time, and other objections we frequently hear from attendees and tied it all back into the positive impact to their clinical practice they’d gain from attending the conference. He said it much it better in the video than we ever could have said it in an email, and it provided a deeper level of content that users could access with just one click.

The results of these changes were exactly what the doctor ordered. Campaign-wide open rates more than tripled over the previous year’s to 15.4%, and average clickthrough rates were up over 2.6%, with some segments having rates as high as 9.7%. The personal emails had the best performance, as expected, with open rates all over 16%, yet year-over-year the HTML emails did considerably better as well. And the ultimate win was in our performance against our attendee goals: We converted far more registrations via email than in 2009, and we exceeded both attendee and revenue goals by 15%.

In summary, here’s my prescription for your email woes:

· Worry less about how many emails you send. Less is more when the message is right.

· Put the extra time into developing better quality messaging. Relevance and personalization matter.

· Segment, segment, segment — and leverage the information you have about your customers.

· Make your emails interactive. Link to video, integrate with social media, and provide compelling content or offers that make the click worth the time.

· Sanitize your data. We scrubbed out some long-inactive records that depressed metrics and messaged those users separately to reactivate them.

More than anything, don’t settle for the same old thing. Just as a doctor does with a sick patient, if one approach doesn’t work, try another to get better results. And remember, relevance trumps frequency to win engagement.

Is This the Browser of the Future?

Sometimes it’s the little things.

In this case, the little thing may turn out to be a big thing. It’s been fun to take a good, long look at and play around with Rockmelt, the new browser that integrates a variety of social elements to make browsing a true social experience. At first playfully called the “Facebook browser,” it’s built on Chromium, has Facebook integration, and certainly has an interesting feature set.

Now, instead of having a variety of windows, tabs and programs open, you can have full access to major social media sites as part of your one browser window. At various points around the window there are toolbars and icons that provide rollover and/or one-click access to your information streams from Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other places. You can also perform the standard set of functions like share, retweet, like, etc. There’s also a search bar for access to dynamic type-to-search results and a navbar listing your most important friends on the left, with mini-window access to detailed info, wall commenting, etc.

It is definitely a highly social experience, yet I expect a slow adoption rate. There are still a ton of folks who just want to search for things, do research and read online — without the omnipresent stream of information from the socialsphere. I think that eventually the overall ease of monitoring your socialsphere at the same time you’re doing whatever you do online will be something that’s inevitably hard to refuse for most. It’s certainly gotten mixed reviews, but I think Rockmelt has something here, even if it takes time to grow in adoption.

For marketers, it means not necessarily having access to fans and followers in the confines of your fan page or a Twitter client. Your fans or followers may now see your updates and offers in a small window in a nanosecond.

All the more reason to make your social strategy built upon solid content, so you have engagement and your customers find value that lets you stand out from the crowd.

What do you think about Rockmelt — fab or flop?

Interesting Effort: ESPN Audibles

Sometimes it’s just lose-lose, and that’s all it is. You try new stuff to try to improve and be different, and people find something to ding you on anyway.

Marketers always search for that Holy Grail of integration, where the message sings the same across all channels and the customer experience is stellar no matter where the customer finds you.

In pursuit of those lovely things, brands certainly look for ways to facilitate interaction and dialogue to make the experience customer compelling. Enter an appreciable effort in that regard that deserves a good, long look: ESPN Audibles.

It’s a new football talk show on ESPN where — much like a quarterback calling an audible play at the line of scrimmage — fans can change the topic of conversation by posting a question via Twitter or Facebook. Talk about interaction. Who wouldn’t be interested to see their question change conversation among experts on national TV?

I think this is one of the most tangible examples to date of integrating a traditional channel with social media. We all know sports fans are fanatics — hell, they drop billions each year on fantasy sports. So it’s not a stretch to expect a large throng of social-savvy fans to show up on Twitter and Facebook to tweets questions during the show. And for the broadcast lovers, what better way to draw them into social than empowering them to influence their preferred medium?

While Audibles has its share of critics — even for the panel’s choice of socks — it’s not just another contest or discount offer that marries social into the picture. It’s a solid effort to integrate social and traditional channels using content as the backbone. And it provides the audience with real-time control over the content to some degree. That’s a pretty enhanced experience.

And for those football fans out there, it’s an interesting mix of some of ESPN’s most opinionated analysts, including Trent Dilfer, Keyshawn Johnson, Steve Young, and Herm Edwards. Check it out.

Privacy Mistakes, Part 2

In my last post, I raised the question whether or not the following message was sufficient enough to rectify a boneheaded email data-sharing mistake.

I would like to sincerely apologize to everyone blind copied here for accidentally delivering a mass email earlier today with your email address visible.

Needless to say, I am deeply embarrassed my error.

If there is something I can do to rectify any inconvenience that my hastiness may have caused, please do not hesitate to let me know.”

First let’s take a good, long look at the things wrong with this situation, then we’ll get down to the correct way to manage and fix these kinds of predicaments.

This first thing wrong is that something big is missing — and it’s the root cause of the overall problem. There’s a clear lack of marketing control. The original email was sent by a sales rep (happens to be a guy), and it had all of his customer email addresses visible for all to see. The lack of marketing control at his company could’ve led to this for a few reasons. Perhaps there aren’t any marketing professionals employed here at all, and sales folks like this guy are blindly doing their own marketing as best they know how, considering they’re clearly not trained to be marketers.

The second thing wrong is there’s a clear lack of marketing control and/or involvement as it pertains to company email policy. Certainly, with the serious implications presented by CAN-SPAM laws, email should be managed by a marketing team that provides best practices in messaging and metrics, adequate tools for managing deployments and opt-outs, and clear direction on compliance with privacy and security requirements. There’s no way that in 2010, some sales guy should be randomly firing off a mass email to several dozens emails, with no regard for potential liability or consequences. I like to think that perhaps this sales rep just “went rouge” in the overzealous pursuit of sales — yet his subsequent email response shown above belies a clear lack of understanding about anything regarding effective email practice.

The last thing wrong here (that I’ll point out, anyway) is the callousness towards customers on the company’s behalf. I’d never do business with this firm, as they surely don’t consider my needs or my data privacy important. Not to mention that the sales rep’s original email was not effective at all — it was a monologue-oriented rant on the company’s products, not my needs as the customer.

Now that we have that bad stuff out of the way, let’s look at the right way to rectify mistakes when they happen:

  • 1. Don’t make the same mistake twice — If someone in the organization goes rogue and mistakenly deploys an email that discloses customer data, don’t follow up with the same damn kind of email that led to the mistake in the first place! From the same person, no less! Not too smart!
    Deploy your next emails, fully-compliant with CAN-SPAM laws, using email deployment software — that way there’s no risk of the same mistake happening again.
  • 2. Escalate the level and tone of the response — This mistake was made by a front-line person. So in the follow-up efforts asking for forgiveness, consider sending those messages from someone higher up in the management of the brand or company. This approach signifies that the company acknowledges the error at the highest levels and shows that you’re not taking it likely. Consider complementing any email messages with timely follow-up phone calls to address any customer concerns directly.
  • 3. Explain your solution to the problem — The sales guy who sent me the message above not only didn’t know enough not to make the mistake in the first place, he also clearly doesn’t have a clue what to do to fix it. Don’t tell your customers to “let you know if there’s something they can do to help you.” Tell them how you’re gonna make sure this problem doesn’t happen again! Be clear about recognizing the cause of the initial problem, and be clear about how you’re changing your processes to ensure it’s solved forever.
  • 4. Offer an olive branch — A simple gesture to make up for an inconvenience often makes the difference between losing and keeping a customer. If you shared someone’s email data by mistake, offer them a free subscription to an email privacy service. It’s a small correctional investment that proves you value the business relationship and are putting your money where your mouth is in terms of rectifying the problem.

    The moral of the story is that a commitment to effective marketing and running a customer-focused business eliminates alot of risk for these kinds of mistakes. A business that looks for dialogue with customers and uses effective marketing practice (that leverages best practices and is compliant with other requirements) has built-in process to manage communication and feedback — making these mistakes less likely. However, it also ensures that when mistakes do get made, there is appropriate process in place to deal with the clean up effectively.

    If you don’t have that kind of commitment to customers in place, don’t become the bad example of the next blog post — charge ahead and correct your process now.

Privacy Mistakes, Part 1

Mistakes are bound to happen, no matter what. In a fast-paced marketing team, details do get missed and things happen that, while ultimately preventable, are inevitable.

Certainly, how you recover and manage damaged relationships is critical in any situation. Sure, there are measured actions to take for crisis control on serious issues. Yet it doesn’t always have to be an enterprise-level problem in order to damage customer relationships, and no matter if the issue is big or small, when measures are taken to resolve the issue it can lead to backlash if not positioned or implemented correctly.

One of the most sensitive issues is the security of data. For purposes of this blog post, let’s say it’s marketing data. Specifically, let’s say it’s your email database. Your customer email addresses are valuable — priceless, even. And surely, your customers would rank the privacy of their data as a pretty high priority. What do you do when, say, one of your sales reps sends out an email to your entire customer list, yet instead of blind copying everyone he makes the email addresses visible to all? That’s what happened to me recently — although, thankfully, the sender wasn’t from my company, my email address was in his list for all to view. Here’s the message I got later in the day:

I would like to sincerely apologize to everyone blind copied here for accidentally delivering a mass email earlier today with your email address visible.

Needless to say, I am deeply embarrassed my error.

If there is something I can do to rectify any inconvenience that my hastiness may have caused, please do not hesitate to let me know.”

Is that sufficient enough a reply for you?

Ponder that question and let me know your thoughts, and I’ll answer the question myself in my next post.