Posted tagged ‘storytelling’

Take advantage of media change

August 3, 2008

I shared a lunch recently with some old newspaper cronies who were bemoaning the state of the media industry. Change was sweeping the business, and they were completely confused as to how to deal with it.

The fate of traditional media in the digital age is well-known. Circulations are dropping; their business models are under attack by dozens of information sources and advertising vehicles, and young people find them completely irrelevant, preferring information from peers to the kind of top-down authoritative information they have always provided.

As an example, recent numbers for publicly traded newspaper companies are extremely revelatory. The Washington Post, for example, recently posted horrible numbers: print ad revenue declined 22% in the second quarter, following an 11% decline in the first. Like most newspapers today, the Post has gone online in an attempt to stem the tide, but online growth increased only 4% in the same period. The stock prices of several newspaper chains are down over 80%.

Television stations are often suffering the same fate, although their entertainment quotient probably keeps them better afloat.

In both cases, however, these media outlets are typically trying to respond to these forces with the same old methods — in essence putting the newspaper or television news online, complete with intrusive ads that slow down the systems and drive users mad.

The result is as probably expected: Both locally, nationally, and internationally, readers go to the news web sites when something exciting happens, but generally ignore them. They can get a quick rundown of events from online news services.

Now, newspapers and most media aren’t exactly beehives of innovative thinking: In fact, I’d suggest that they’re among the most conservative of institutions, firmly believing in the old adage that what worked yesterday is good enough for today.

So, in terms of operations, most are falling back to old industrial methods. Staffers are being shed in droves; production is being cut back, outsourcing is on the upswing; everybody is being forced to do more with less. As a result journalists are fleeing the business.

All this was conveyed to me in various forms by my buddies, who were also mostly trying to find a way through the morass. But what tweaked my interest was what it’s done to typical newsroom operations and what that means for marketers.

Basically, those who are left have been turned into production line workers. They’re even busier than before, and have very little time to do their jobs in the traditional way.

So here are some tips for marketers in this new world of media:

  • 1. More relevant info needed, please. “We only have time to rewrite press releases,” one friend lamented. So, this means the more relevant information a marketer or communicator can supply, the better the chances of being picked up.
  • 2. They may be busier, but they still recognize bullshit. Marketers or communicators should be helpful, in that they supply all information — both favourable and critical — the journalist needs. If journalists perceive that you’re baring your soul, they’ll trust you more.
  • 3. Info at the speed of light. The old client-or-boss pleasing format best described as “Acme Industries CEO Elmer Bloggs is pleased to announce…” that then drones on about some useless event, is dead, dead, dead. Before, no one cared about CEO Bloggs, but might have waded through this kind of self-serving verbiage to look for nuggets. Not any more. Say it in the first line or don’t say it at all.
  • 4. You need to have a good story, well told. It was tough enough to get trash in before, but now it’s nearly impossible. So there better be more to your story than a bunch of chest-thumping homilies and barely hidden agendas to get “free publicity”. And it better be written in plain language. Lose the jargon.
  • 5. The digital/interactive press release is going to rule. An interactive press release or digital media kit that puts all required information, including interviews, dissenting opinions, analysis, and other relevant material, at a journo’s fingertips — literally, via the internet — is going to be used. Something that forces the journo to call up or sit down with CEO Bloggs for an interview to please his ego won’t.
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Case Studies: Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

June 25, 2008

Case studies are becoming an increasingly popular B2B marketing method, especially online, because they feature the best of your product or service without looking like a blatant marketing ploy or brochure.

In a sense, they allow a prospective customer to put themselves in someone else’s shoes to see if there’s a fit. It’s a version of the try before you buy concept often used in consumer marketing.

But too many online case studies haven’t really made the jump to true case study. Instead they merely re-arrange the standard advertising/marketing language and add a “real-life” example. As a result they start to sound like those late night television ads that feature some happy customer spouting marketing speak:

“Acme’s gizmo sure helped my love life. Thanks, Acme!”

The case study goes back to the early 20th century when it was used in the study of medicine, but quickly spread to the business world, most notably used by the Harvard Business School as a way to educate its graduate students because there were few business books around at the time.

As a marketing method, it can be powerful way to demonstrate your value proposition and expertise. But only if it’s done correctly. And correct means it must follow the model devised by its originators — as an educational tool that is only peripherally marketing. It’s not an advertisement that screams “Buy! Buy!”.

So, here are some tricks to composing good cases.

  • Case studies are not about you. Well, they are in a sense, but with much moderation. They’re about customers and how you helped them solve THEIR problems. People don’t care about your problems. Neither do they want to hear you brag about what geniuses you are.
  • Case studies should follow a problem-solution format. Even back in the medical days, a case has always been about a problem, its repercussions, and how it was or was not solved. If your case is mostly about your “solution”, and very little about the customer’s problem … then you have a problem.
  • Case studies are storytelling. Problems cause emotions, mostly negative; resolutions to problems cause positive emotions. Emotions create drama, which is the basis of all storytelling. You don’t have to get into “…it was a dark and stormy night” kind of storytelling, but there should be a logical dramatic flow to your case study that keeps the reader interested.
  • Case studies involve lessons. The point of a case study is to educate — supposedly to educate prospective customers on how you think, and therefore how you can help them, which might lead them to consider hiring you or buying from you. So they always involve lessons, implied or overt.
  • Case studies should be tight. There’s no room for pet causes, philosophical ramblings, or subtle asides in case studies. People want to hear the story so it can help them solve their own problems. Stick to your point.

Meet the Media Types

January 17, 2008

Despite all the hoopla about user-generated content, citizen news and other new media, traditional media is still the main target for most marketers and communicators looking for a little promotion. Plus, they’ve now been joined by hundreds of other content publishers who are for all intents and purposes mini-news operations. Technology has changed formats –most traditional media operations are also new media now — but the underlying journalistic principles remain the same.

That’s probably why media training is still an essential part of marketing and communications, even though it has changed slightly. For example, as was highlighted in my previous post about Hacks and Flacks, the days of shotgunning messages — the blast and pray technique –to the media are over.

It’s even truer today that if you’re going to work with the media — in whatever form — you have to understand who you’re working with. That means you have to do a little more research on the particular media person you’re hoping to contact.

Following is a handy guide to some common media personality types. Not everyone fits each exactly, and often each denizen of every newsroom has touches of all of them. But one personality type usually dominates.

Also, with many newspeople, different types can dominate at different times in their careers. So, when dealing with a news person, it’s up to you to figure out which personality is dominant at the moment.

1. The Careerist. The careerist is climbing the journalism ladder and so is much more concerned with his or her career or business than your story. At their best, careerists unearth the nuggets that are hidden within your story; at their worst, they are pompous connivers who treat you as mere fodder for their career arc. The upside: They’re usually consummate professionals. The downside: Too often, they look for the most sensational elements that will get them — not you — noticed.

2. The Journo. Been there, done that, and all the t-shirts have faded. The journo has been kicking around for some time and long ago stopped worrying about his or her career. As sharp observers of societal trends (and of their superiors’ or advertisers’ quirky wants) journos tend to concentrate only on the story, finding, fixing, and filing it professionally and quickly before heading off to the next one. The upside: Journos’ loyalty is only to the tenets of journalism, so you’ll probably get a fair hearing. The downside: A lifetime of isolation from anyone but their media brethren means they can be very cynical and distant.

3. The Squirrel. All data is good data to squirrels, who are really closeted engineers or researchers, most commonly found in technology journalism. These information gatherers take great pride in knowing more details than anyone else and occasionally snowing you under with their knowledge. The squirrel will unearth obscure reports, 100-page studies, and interview 25 industry experts, all for a 300 word story. The upside: Boy, are they thorough. The downside: They often get lost in their own information; your story will too.

4. The Explorer: It’s the journey not the destination that is important to the explorer. Explorers are hunter-gatherers who want to understand what underlies everything. But since it’s the process of understanding that gives them the thrill, once they get there, they rapidly lose interest. Upside: They’re very collaborative if you can keep them stimulated. Downside: If you or your story aren’t interesting, they’re not interested.

5. The Rebel. Because journalism provides one of the few jobs in which they can continually give the finger to everyone, and at the same time subvert the system from within, rebels tend to move into the media when they’re young. Also, journalism creates a channel that allows them to cross social and class distinctions and connect with (and sometimes frighten) people with whom they wouldn’t normally mix. Upside: Rebels love the “afflict the comfortable” part of the old journalistic rule and so make great advocates. Downside: Too often, everything is fitted to a very narrow range of thinking, usually along the lines of Us vs Them. They don’t see a lot of gray.

6. The Project Manager. If there’s only one way to do things, project managers always know what it is, because they’re most comfortable in well grooved paths. If your story breaks one of the rules, i.e. government bad, little guy good, look out. They’ll also dismiss your press release or messaging in a second if it contains some obvious error, muddled thinking, over-the-top or obscure language, or mispellings. Upside: They make great editors and story assessors because journalism is essentially a rule-based business, and they know all the rules. Bow to their wisdom and you’re in. Downside. Make a mistake, lack logic, fail to back up your claims, or sell too hard, and they’ll brutalize you.

MarCom 2.O: The Story Remains The Same

October 28, 2007

Let’s wade into the great debate going on about traditional marketing and communications vs new techniques, which we’ll call MarCom 2.0.

Traditionalists dismiss all that new stuff as just a fad, particularly if their clients or corporate chiefs operate in more traditional areas of business. Advocates of social networking techniques are evangelists: they’ve discovered something new and believe it’s the only thing worthwhile.

Both are right. And both are wrong.

This is arguing over tactics and methodology, not over what you’re really doing — communicating, delivering a message and especially telling a story.

From the time when people first developed language beyond a series of grunts and descriptive words, storytelling has been the basis of all communication. Certainly the style of storytelling has changed — sometimes, such as in Elizabethan times, it was flowery and imagistic, other times, such as the age of scientific discovery in the late 1800s, it was functional and direct — but the underlying purpose has always remained. You tell a story to convince someone else, or influence their thinking.

All stories have basic dramatic elements: There’s an introduction to the “characters”, the presentation of a challenge, the ways in which that challenge is met, and the triumph or tragedy that results from these endeavors. It doesn’t matter whether the story is Tristan and Isolde, caveman Kruk relating how he killed a mastodon to feed the tribe, or about how your product or service was tweaked to meet a buyer’s need.

To paraphrase Led Zeppelin, the story remains the same.

But the greatest problem today with most marketing and communications is that we’ve abandoned the storytelling format. Too often we think basic information is all that’s needed — look at many software sites — or that the more technobabble we throw at people the smarter they’ll think we are. Or sometimes we go the other way, thinking that we have to somehow “trick” targets with fancy graphics, video, or breathless, multiple-exclamation-mark descriptions..

Forget all that. The hard work comes before you even begin the tactical stuff. You have to determine your client’s particular story for this product or service. This means clearly understanding such things as purpose, problems, and positioning.

After that, it’s a matter of putting things together in the right format to best tell the story. This could be a plan or project charter, a presentation, a press release, an advertisement, an article or white paper, or any of the other marketing and lead generation techniques out there.

I’m not downgrading the technical aspects of marketing and communications. Some people are brilliant at putting things together; others not so much. But I do know that without an underlying story, technical virtuosity is meaningless.

The Widget Campaign: Information Relevancy

September 27, 2007

In my journalism days, I used to tell a story to outsiders to explain how news is generated. It still has great relevance to how information flows within and without an organization.

In the story, the publisher arrives one Monday morning and announces to the managing editor that at a cocktail party the previous Saturday evening, all the chatter was about Widgets. Maybe it should be looked into.

Managing editor calls in his assistants and indicates that the Big Guy wants something done on Widgets. Assistants go to the city desk and demand a serious campaign on Widgets.

City desk puts together a team and for the next week the paper features endless, award-aimed, stories about Widgets.

After about ten days and pages upon pages of Widget articles, the publisher informs the managing editor that his contacts are wondering why all this noise about Widgets.

Instantly, the cry goes out: No More Widget stories!

In many organizations with hierachical structures, information flow is similar to the Widget campaign. Information that flows from the top down the chain, or from the bottom up the chain, gets extremely distorted along the way.

Noise is accumulated and time is lost as the information stops at each level. Information flow is usually seriously impaired and the information that makes it is often very distorted.

Similarly, information flow for marketing and communications is often impaired inside and outside an organization.

Those in charge of information usually employ traditional information channels, i.e. public relations. But various corporate managers ride herd on and “add” to the information process.

The result is often a press release or information campaign written by committee that covers everybody’s butts, says absolutely nothing, and is numbingly dull. It invariably finds its way right into everybody’s trash can and the campaign falls flat.

But just as organizational information flow can often be speeded up and cleansed by using a network structure, use of social media networks can sometimes eliminate the clog and crud that is often a feature of corporate information campaigns.

Dissemination through different channels demands that the information be relevant to the user. This in turn often forces the deliverer to speak plainly, have a point, and tell a logical and interesting story.