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I’m spending the weekend in a small town (the sign says population 350, but I’d guess it’s half that) attending my sister’s high school graduation. A large part of my time here will be spent just sitting and watching the customers in my mom’s small cafe.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about customer service, public relations and the importance of word of mouth marketing by sitting in my mom’s various restaurants. She has a 40+year career as a waitress, restaurant manager and now owner/operator of small cafes, and has always been full of lessons that she does not know she is able to share.

Reputation is everything

In a town of 350, bringing in new business is actually second to ensuring that the business you do have sticks around. Keeping the regulars happy, even the ones who come in only for a morning cup of coffee is vital to your long-term success. In PR, we see similar opportunities. That reporter at the small, independent blog could soon be leading TechMeme’s leaderboard. By taking care of those around you, you can ensure that your reputation bolsters your ability to generate results.

A quality product goes a long way

The Seiad Valley Cafe is known for its pancake challenge. You get two hours to eat a mountain of pancakes that occupies the space a medium pizza normally would. But by offering a great product that is of consistent quality, the success of the business is ensured. This means the avocado is freshly cut and the gravy is made every morning. Your product needs to keep the customers coming back. It needs to solve problems that customers didn’t even know they had and encourage them to want more of your products or services.

Community is key

This is the most important aspect of running a successful business. For my mom’s restaurant, it means treating everyone with respect, buying the occasional meal and welcoming weary travelers making their way down the Pacific Crest Trail. Similarly, we utilize social media in an attempt to share content and to embark on a “content marketing” mission. The reality is, by utilizing digital and social media, we are enabling our community to interact with our businesses as people. This is why being a human (and not a bot) on social media is not only a good idea, but something I advocate for as being a best practice. Even if you’re simply sharing a news item, adding just a slightly human voice can make a tremendous impact on your overall success.

By embracing the same principles as a small-town restaurant’s approach to its daily operations, you can build your business’ marketing and pr programs with ease. Just make sure your biscuits and gravy are the best in the area.

We live in a world where you can pay a stranger $3,000 to “professionally” formulate a social media strategy, post to various social networks and encourage your guests to share on social media.

Now, I’m all for wedding guests sharing their happy memories, but the concept of a marketer selling this as a service is what gets to me. The slow death of social media is a topic that I recently had a chance to explore during a panel I moderated: “Marketers are killing social media. Now what?” The challenge is that the origins of social media have been lost to a new era of social media marketing and promoted content. You can read a great recap of the event here.

I am a social media nerd. I joined Twitter when the service was less than a year old. I remember when getting written up in TechCrunch could crash a website. I remember when Foursquare was just a glimmer in Dodgeball’s eyes.

But I am also guilty of social media’s demise. I have sponsored posts that didn’t need to be sponsored and included #overlylonghashtags in content in an attempt to be witty. I am not a social media saint. But, I am a realist and I am here to offer some assistance on how we can resuscitate social media, but it won’t be easy.

Not quite on life support

Social media has grown in the last decade to the point of being an orgy of promoted content aimed to expose us nonstop to the concept of “brands” that want to “engage” with their “communities.” Let’s just stop that.

Interesting #SaveSocial w/ @kevinurie@ChrisHeuer, @YoliChrisholm & @geekgiant on how mktg is killing social. pic.twitter.com/7IvgpoJx38

— Mike Barbre (@MikeBarbre) March 26, 2014

In order to save social media from itself, we need to pause and emphasize the good content that our brands are capable of producing. People share awesome. People buy what solves a problem. So, when we are trying to get attention and encourage people to pay attention to our goods or services, let’s tell awesome stories.

When we want people to buy our goods and services, we need to provide them with awesome products. This represents a fundamental shift that we need to embrace on our way to saving social media. As one of the panelists noted, this shift is going to take courage. There is an inherent fear in social media strategy that what we do won’t work. We sacrifice creativity at the hands of metrics.

Making the C-suite happy

One topic we explored during the conversation was one that was familiar to social media: how to keep the C-suite happy. What emerged was the realization that it is often middle management that needs to be educated on the risks and potential results of a social media campaign. The middle managers are the ones accountable for budget spend and on the front lines of reports and metrics. They are the first to know when a campaign isn’t working and the first to hear it from their bosses.

Being able to create a social media environment where failures are not only tolerated, but accepted, is vital. Not every tweet or Instagram capture can be a viral hit. One of the core ways to accomplish this is by abolishing the “use it or lose it” mentality of marketing budgets. Having the ability to be creative in real time comes down to having the human and financial resources available to not only recognize an opportunity, but to capitalize on it as well.

We hear of surprise and delight campaigns fairly regularly, yet how many of us have the ability to execute? Is that inability purely due to the lack of budget to buy a piece of personal electronics or for the community manager to ship a sample of a product to a customer?

In today’s world, everybody is an influencer. Every user of any social network is not only a potential customer, but they are also potentially your next vocal advocate. Let’s not let those opportunities die along with social media.

Posted in PR

We recently found out that my wife is pregnant with our second child. With that comes a fair amount of introspection, thinking about the future and what is to come. For me, this sense of adventure, this sense of wonder, was coupled with an opportunity.

That sense of adventure and that opportunity to pursue it are leading me to a new opportunity. Starting in a couple of days, I will be joining a scrappy PR agency called Voxus where I will get to work with a growing client base that is focused on emerging technologies, service providers and consumer companies. I get to work with startups again and this makes me happy. I get to help shape some amazing stories. (and, as with our first child, there’s precedent too)

I’m going to miss the friends I have made over the last 3.5 years at Waggener Edstrom. I have had some amazing opportunities to do amazing work with amazing people. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. 

I mentioned amazing experiences and opportunities. I’ve helped bring Windows 8 to the world, I’ve helped bring Microsoft Surface to the world. I’ve been a part of countless brainstorms, strategy sessions and other activities that help set the course for one of the biggest companies in the world. These experiences are what I keep this in mind whenever I had a frustrating experience or was asked to pull coverage at 4pm on a Friday or refresh that briefing doc for the 12th time. This is the best job in the world, hands down. We get to tell stories and create. We get paid to create amazing that makes people happy, elicits emotions and rewards the junior software engineer coding away on the next version of Dynamics or Office or a new database schema with their moment in the headlines.

I am thankful for the laughs, deep sighs and countless swear words exclaimed. I am thankful for the happy hours, the events, the times looking for pizza in Austin at 1am. I am thankful for the lessons and the support for me and my family. And with that, I am going to work with a small and scrappy agency that helps small and scrappy clients tell big stories. I’ll still be doing digital work (which means too much time on Twitter) and even sharing learnings and some best practices from time to time.

Away we go on a new adventure. And, if you’ve ever wanted to work with me, now’s the time. Let’s go tell some amazing stories!

A while back, I had an experience to work with a paid spokesperson to host a client event. Now, paid spokespeople are not a new tactic by any means. But generally these are celebrities (note: the definition of celebrity is subjective) that get paid to show up, mingle, say a few scripted words and get in the first town car out of there.

For this, we took a bit of a different tactic. Working with a well-known blogger, we gave the host free reign over the invite list. The host selected people from her network that should tend and that she felt would get value from what we were doing.

Instead of a scripted demo/product pitch, we wanted the host to tell her story. We felt that was interesting enough and the product simply sit on the table. Of course we had some suggested messaging that we would have appreciated having mentioned, but we wouldn’t be super bummed if it wasn’t.

And, you know what? It worked. The comments we heard were resoundingly fabulous. We wanted to be respectful of these folks’ time and give them an influencer event they would want to attend. In act, we had folks asking for more information about the product because it was not an over-the-top pitch.

So, how do we go about ensuring that influencer events are successful in the future?

  1. Let the product speak for itself: In this case, the product was one that could truly stand alone. We let attendees interact, experience and discuss the product without stepping in too much.
  2. Give up the reigns: We were simply facilitators. We brought the group together and embraced any group dynamics that happened.
  3. The host with the most: Were there other people in the city that had more traffic, followers or fame? Sure. But for the audience we had in the room, the importance of familiarity was crucial in finding success.
  4. Follow up: Since this was a tight-knit community, I really think that there was a cascading effect for when coverage started posting, it encouraged others to post as well.

As a PR person, letting go can be hard, but having faith in who you work with can lead to a lot of success.

Posted in PR

In a world where coverage on the top three technology blog can generate less than 3,000 page views yet client’s blog posts routinely torch the top of TechMeme, what role does the media play in the future of media relations?

website traffic from tech blogs

Thanks to @percival for sharing a look at what a few writeups on tech blogs brings. Direct and t.co links combine for a large part of his traffic.

Well, the role of trusted opinion will likely not go away. But the role of informant and source of original information is shifting to the companies that are providing the news. This is a trend that is not unique to technology companies either.

Non tech story tellers

The Seattle Police Department has had a couple of viral successes lately. The articles are penned by a former journalist and are informative, entertaining and readable. And they don’t come from a news outlet. Similar story in Milwaukee where the police department there launched one of the most content-forward websites I’ve ever seen. As a former cops and crime reporter, I could only wish I had this level of access.

We’re seeing the evolution of message control in the entertainment space too. The lead singer of Machine Head, Robb Flynn, just launched a well-written diary/blog that’s already getting external coverage.

There’s tons of other examples of companies using their own properties to break news, control a conversation and establishing themselves as the definitive source of information on a topic. This tactic is not new. What is happening, however, is that the concept of media relations can be facilitated by an RSS feed. But here’s a big caveat here:

Using a blog as a trusted media source only works if there is a solid content strategy in place.

Using your blog as your news hub

We know that content strategies hinge on one important thing: content. But what kind of content works best? While the safe answer here is “it depends,” I’ll offer that the best content is what drives action. A simple product update can drive a fresh round of signups or sales and help drive the bottom line. All you need to do is ensure there’s a call to action that is clear and accessible.

But the real answer is simply to be present. Post about more than just news and invite a community to form around your content and embrace that community when it does form. Encourage your bloggers to be involved in the comments and establish their voice in the public.

But what’s this have to do with media relations? A lot. Access to information and exclusives puts a continuous strain on the relationship between flacks and hacks. Conditioning not only your consumer audience but also the media to seek information out from you first helps both parties.

The challenges of an open business

Now, there’s a couple of challenges with this evolution. Namely, not everything is news and not everything is public. For the first one, that’s the beauty of the blog. A blog post of product updates and features may not generate coverage, but it gives you an opportunity to share some deep links to product pages and show some product images.

As for the fact that you’ll still have embargoed or NDA information? Well, that’s where the relations part of this equation comes into play.