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Go Ahead, Get At Me – Tech and the Blurred Lines Between Advertising, Marketing And Public Relations

February 10, 2014 Leave a comment

The Blurred Lines of Public Relations, Advertising and Marketing

As far as I can tell, the major factor that helped keep communications disciplines like advertising and PR separate was the fact that one had to work through the mass media to get messages out.  On the advertising side, there was the complex process of media buying from hundreds if not thousands of media outlets.  On the PR side, there was a similarly complex process of establishing relationships with a vast array of journalists.

No longer.

The rise of digital has accelerated the pace at which communications efforts are integrating, to the point of almost being indistinguishable.  Here’s how this reality has manifested itself:

Pay Per Click

John Wanamaker famously said “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”  Now we can track a customer all the way from clicking on an ad through shopping on a website to the final purchase (and beyond, with the proper customer engagement system in place).  Nationwide advertising campaigns used to only be something the largest brands could afford.  Small businesses were relegated to the yellow pages, local weekly papers, and high school athletics programs.

As Chris Anderson wrote: “What matters is not where customers are, or even how many of them are seeking a particular [product], but only that some number of them exist, anywhere.”

Now that anyone can advertise to anyone at an affordable price simply by filling out the equivalent of an intelligent online form, it’s reducing the need for specialization and expertise.  Over the past few months alone, Facebook has made dramatic changes to its advertising platform to simplify the process to the point where even a novice can run a competent digital ad campaign (with A/B testing no less!)  Both Facebook and Google have robust educational resources (from chats to webinars to tutorials) so that anyone can learn how to advertise.

Everyone Needs Creative

Decades ago, it only made sense to pay for high-quality photography or video if you had the budget to pay to have them viewed.  This usually meant traditional advertising campaigns with big budgets.  Digital has rendered this paradigm obsolete.  Public Relations pros, used to relying on the written word and some well-placed phone calls, are now finding themselves pressed for content to fill the insatiable newsfeeds of their clients.

Better cross-train.

No matter who you are, if you work in a communications-related discipline it is now your duty to be able to produce visual content.  Photos, illustrations, infographics, videos, vines – you’ll need them all to help tell your company’s story in a fashion compatible with the media-rich, attention-poor sea we all swim in.  “Creatives” are still important – but the economics of marketing/advertising/pr today mean that they can’t be the only producers of visual media.  So voracious is the public’s appetite for new and original visuals that we need to train ourselves to see every meeting, visit, tour or walk down the hall as a time to keep our eyes open for what could turn into the next tweet or YouTube upload.

Understand IP Law

Another reason it’s important to produce your own original content is that it’s so easy to take what someone else has produced and share it as your own.  This is verboten, however, unless you do it within the carefully-prescribed parameters of the Intellectual Property (IP) law (something PR people had little occasion to worry about in the past).  You need to know what is “fair use” – and beyond that – what is fair play (even if you’re not risking a lawsuit, your actions could risk the reputation of your organization).

When you need a visual, fight the urge to type ‘images.google.com’ and bogart something from there for your next blog post.  Even if you’re web-savvy and know to click the “Search Tools” box and specify “labeled for commercial reuse with modification” under “usage rights” – you could still run afoul of copyright trolling law firms tossing out demand letters like singles at a strip club.  You don’t know that the person who uploaded that image and gave it a Creative Commons license actually owned it in the first place.  You can’t even trust the royalty-free stock image websites – colleagues of mine have been shocked to find that some of those services steal images and leave users to suffer the legal consequences when the actual owners find the unauthorized use.

Turnkey Visual Production

Even the highly-technical field of video production is changing at the hands of the blurring effects of tech.  Here there are two factors at play:

  1. The Public’s Changing Appetite: Viewers (particularly younger ones) no longer require that everything they watch be well-produced.  Tastes are changing as a result of the democractizing effects of social media.  In some cases, a piece of video that is too slickly-produced can actually have an undermining effect.  A similar phenomenon happened with the advent of digital music storage formats (particularly MP3): teens have grown to prefer the crispy, tinny quality of compressed digital music over the warm sound of analog records that are prized by audiophiles.
  2. An Explosion of Automated Tools: One no longer needs thousands of dollars of equipment and software to produce visuals worth sharing.  YouTube offers free tools to correct and enhance video (and it even automatically detects and alerts users to possible problems).  Easy-to-use apps and software will bundle images with pretty transitions and set them to music.  Google+ is earning praise for its “Auto Awesome” tool which magically improves images and even bundles them into a multimedia experience.

SEO and Two-Way Communication

PR pros aren’t the only group displaced by this shift in how we produce and consume media; on the flip side of the equation marketers and advertisers are being confronted with the need to up their game with respect to writing and relationship-building (traditionally the wheelhouse of PR).  No one will watch a gorgeous video or view an amazing graphic if they’re not properly described and tagged so they can be indexed by the massive social media machines whose algorithms determine what we see recommended in our newsfeeds.  Further, it used to be that you aired an ad and the only feedback you might get was an industry award or write-up in a media trade column – but now every company is confronted with instantaneous feedback in the form of likes and comments.  Responding to the “trampling herd” can be critical to the success of a campaign.

To some, all of this change comes as a crushing blow.  Unfortunately decades of specialized expertise and experience are being rendered irrelevant.  I sympathize with them, but in the end all of this is for the better.  Now you get to use virtually all of your ideas – the barriers to executing them are much lower.  Moreover organizations that have always had stifling budget limitations have a new universe of opportunities to connect with stakeholders (look no further than the power granted to animal rescues that have harnessed the photo-sharing abilities of Facebook to find adoptive homes for previously-unwanted pets – something they couldn’t do if they had to do ad buys in newspapers or on TV).

Onward and upward.

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Sales Jobs Falsely Positioned as Marketing, Public Relations and Advertising (An Update)

October 17, 2013 2 comments

Earlier I wrote about some companies in the West Michigan area that attempt to recruit young professionals into direct sales jobs by positioning those jobs as careers in advertising, marketing and public relations.  To clarify my position – I have nothing against sales as a vocation.  I have family members and friends that work in sales.  What I take issue with is recruiting people under false pretenses.  Though Sales and Marketing work hand-in-hand, saying a job in Sales is the same as a job in Marketing is like saying a Comptroller is the same as a Firefighter.

“Marketing” is a word that has been bastardized (and is frequently used interchangeably with Public Relations and Advertising).  True “marketing” requires that an organization have control of the “Marketing Mix” or the “Four P’s”: Product, Price, Place and Promotion.   Direct sellers do not control any of those things (save occasionally the promotion).

If anyone is unclear on the difference between Sales and Marketing, here’s an excerpt from an article by Dorie Clark in the Harvard Business Review that outlines the larger difference:

“Recognize the difference between marketing and sales. There’s often a lot of confusion about marketing and sales. Indeed, many executives have both in their titles — where does one discipline end and the other begin? Here’s my quick definition: marketing is what you do to make clients come to you, while sales is about you reaching out to them and closing the deal. They’re both important and complementary — the former is longer-term and creates a valuable pipeline for the coming months and years; the latter is what’s going to help you make payroll next week. Ideally, your company should have a strong mix of both to keep your cash flow balanced; if not, you’re going to have to adjust accordingly.” – (2012), “Marketing for the Extremely Shy,” Harvard Business Review 

In a more specific, occupational sense, jobs in Advertising/PR/Marketing almost universally require college degrees whereas jobs in Sales almost universally do not.

Why this practice concerns me is that it stands to negatively affect the careers of young professionals.  This entry level work in sales will not readily translate into experience that a future employer at an actual Marketing, Advertising or PR agency would value in a hiring decision.

Here are a sampling of some misleading job descriptions I was just able to find today with a quick Google search, including jobs from another company I haven’t seen before falsely selling itself as doing “marketing” – T.E.M. Inc.  :

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Other companies that fit this model include:

– Craig James, Inc. (Glassdoor Reviews)
– Prospect Solutions, Inc (Glassdoor Reviews)
– MLM Sports Marketing
– Excel Enterprises
– Excel Marketing
– Eminence Management

When is a Marketing Job Not a Marketing Job? – At Grand Marketing / Cohesion Inc / [Future Name Here]

July 23, 2013 18 comments

I feel an obligation to protect the students that I teach and mentor.  Whenever possible, I try to steer them away from mistakes I’ve made or lend them some of the limited wisdom I’ve acquired in nearly two decades of being a professional.

The latest effort to help students and young professionals out is advising them to stay away from “Cohesion, Inc.” (formerly “Grand Marketing”), “Prestige Enterprises,” and other similar companies, which are essentially door-to-door sales or telemarketing jobs falsely promoted as jobs in marketing, advertising or public relations.

These companies target college students and 20-somethings with promises of jobs in marketing and advertising, when what they really offer is commission-based sales.  They claim to represent companies in the “Sports” and “Fashion” fields because they know these industries are top targets of young professionals.  In reality, students end up selling undesirable products (like health supplements) and work on commission – and often they’re set up as multi-level marketing operations (ie pyramid schemes).

In doing some digging, it appears that many of these companies are all franchises of Cydcor (the Mother Ship). Their entry on PissedOffConsumer spells out many of the same complaints that others have had.  The parent company, be it Cydcor or some other group, provides the franchisees with canned website copy and direction on how to set up their business (which makes them all easy to spot – see below).

Fortunately social media gives former employees and interviewees a way to share information about the deception with others, resulting in this long entry about Grand Marketing / Cohesion at PissedOffConsumer.com.  In fact, social media could be what drove the company to switch names as the negative reviews rank higher than the actual company website in Google search results:

Grand Marketing Google Results

Another company of the same variety in Grand Rapids has come to my attention: Prestige Enterprises Inc.  They appear to be the same type of operation, as the copy from their website shows up on the sites of dozens of other similar “marketing” companies around the country.  I took a unique phrase from the websites of Cohesion and Prestige and googled it – these are the results (so either they’re all plagiarists, or they all are using the same website template):

These companies also share similar Facebook page characteristics (inspirational quote photos – some even use the same ones, group photos, and a “careers” page that links to the Jobcast recruiting app).

Prestige Alpha Comparison

Impulse Adamant Comparison

These companies are starting to get more savvy about how they recruit, as they’re realizing that people are figuring them out.  They’ve even started to infiltrate the job boards at colleges and universities (so you can’t even trust that those have been vetted properly, a fact I was disappointed to find out).  Moreover, Cohesion appears to be trying to get out in front of the negative reviews, and mysteriously a couple of rave reviews have shown up on the company’s Glassdoor.com page (and somehow the same photos from their Facebook page are uploaded to the Glassdoor profile on the same day as one of the reviews):

Cohesion Similar Pics

As many young professionals need to be warned about these deceptive outfits as possible – so if you’ve had a bad experience with a company like this, post a review to Glassdoor.com, RipOffReport.com, or PissedOffConsumer.com, or give us their name here. If you’ve received a job offer from a company you’re suspicious of, please feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to help you do background research on them to see if they’re legitimate or not.  If you want to do your own research, here are some tips:

How to Tell if a Company is Really a Marketing / Advertising / Public Relations Firm

  1. Check their website and social media presences for photos of actual, real people.  Most of these companies rely heavily on stock photography (because real photography of real people is expensive or time-consuming to produce).  If they do have photos of “real” people – they’ll typically be large group photos which make it appear like there are more people working there than actually are.
  2. Do they talk about “Sports Marketing,” “Fashion Marketing,” or other really desirable industries that seem too good to be true? – They probably are.
  3. Search for the company name in your local business publications (for example the Grand Rapids Business Journal, MiBiz or Rapid Growth) – have they made any lists?  Are there any profiles of their executives or employees?  If not – that’s a red flag.
  4. Check your local County Registrar or the Michigan State Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (DLEG) – they will allow you to search for people who have applied for DBA record (“Doing Business As”).  Most, like Kent County, have an online search feature. This can tell you who is behind the company and much more about them – particularly the State of Michigan DLEG directory; it contains the company’s annual report and incorporation documents (watch for companies where the same person holds all of the offices – ie President, Secretary, Treasurer, Director).
  5. Find what appears to be a unique string of text somewhere in their website (usually from the “About” section) and search for it in quotes in Google.  When the results come back, if you see the exact same string of text in multiple other websites – you’ll know they’re not legit.  Note: Google will sometimes omit similar results – so you may need to click the “repeat the search with the omitted results included” link.
  6. Look for a company on Linkedin.  They should have a company page (especially if they’re a marketing, advertising or public relations firm).  If they don’t have one, red flag.  If they DO have one, you can use it to get more intel on the company: if you view a company page and click “Insights,” it will give you a wealth of data.  You can find out who some former employees are (so you can look up their work history or perhaps even contact them to get insight on how it was working there), who some current employees are, what similar companies people also search for, and the most common places their employees came from.
  7. Search for the company on job websites (I recommend Indeed.com, which is right now by far the best job website).  If they have a LOT of positions posted and yet they’re small enough that you’ve never heard of them, that should be a big red flag.  Just look, for example, at how many positions Prestige Enterprises is trying to fill (and the variety of titles).

Will Social Media Marketers Become Obsolete Middle Men?

August 16, 2012 Leave a comment

The Point Where "Middle" Parties Become Irrelevant is where Easier Use / More Powerful Tools intersects With Increased  User Expertise

Demand for Social Media Marketing has exploded in the past decade as brands struggle to reach audiences beyond the increasingly-fractured traditional media consuming public.  Right now Social Media Marketers are able to take advantage of the public’s overwhelming ignorance about communicating via social media and get paid to navigate those spheres for their clients.

It won’t last forever.  It may not even last another decade.

Think of the travel industry.  Before ‘teh interwebz’ information used to be scarce, so it made sense to pay someone else with expertise to navigate the complicated pricing schemes and array of accommodations providers to do it for you.  Flash-forward to the year 2000 when the web came into its own in terms of providing easier ways to book airline tickets, hotel rooms and car rentals (as well as recommendation sites chock full of free expertise and reviews).  This great graphic from the Cleveland Plain Dealer says it all: Read more…

Slow Clap for the Harvard Business Review; Finally Catches up to Social Media Marketing Circa 2004

August 15, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m not one enamored of the Harvard Business Review.  The ivory tower often isn’t the best vantage point.

That’s why I’m unimpressed with the recent piece by Bill Lee, “Marketing is Dead,” published in the HBR.   The article does little to live up to the provocative title, rehashing conclusions most savvy marketers and advertisers came to nearly a decade ago (even the slowest among us arrived at them at least five years ago).

Why is marketing dead?  CEOs are frustrated and customers are ignoring traditional media – just look!:

“In a devastating 2011 study of 600 CEOs and decision makers by the London-based Fournaise Marketing Group, 73% of them said that CMOs lack business credibility and the ability to generate sufficient business growth, 72% are tired of being asked for money without explaining how it will generate increased business, and 77% have had it with all the talk about brand equity that can’t be linked to actual firm equity or any other recognized financial metric.”

So what?  The percentage of Americans that say CEOs lack credibility is at 79 percent.  Moreover, the turnover rate for CEOs is at a six-year high.  Audiences have been tuning out from the traditional mass media for over a decade. Read more…

Thanks but no Thanks – Five Rebuttals for “Backseat Marketers”

July 29, 2012 2 comments
Avoid the Herd Mentality in Marketing

Avoid the Herd Mentality in Marketing (w/ love to Seth Godin)

For some reason, people seem very comfortable assuming they know as much as anyone trained in marketing, advertising or public relations.  Whereas few people would feel comfortable second-guessing  a  physician’s assistant physician assistant,  or telling an engineer how to do their job – they are more than willing to micro-manage communications professionals.

To them, I say “thanks but no thanks.”  If you’ve not in the field, and you’ve ever offered up any of the following advice to a colleague in the field, please check yourself.

1. You think we should advertise somewhere because you consume that media.

In all liklihood *you* are not the demographic being targeted.  *I* am not the demographic being targeted either.

This happens all the time – I guess it has to do with some desire we have to feel as though we understand the average person’s mindset and that we represent the common opinion on the street.  The problem is – it’s increasingly hard to identify “the average person” anymore.

Not only that, but whomever he/she is, none of us is likely representative of them (particularly where I work where most of the employees have advanced degrees – relegating them to a tiny ten percent of the US population, not at all representative of the median).

Instead of going with your gut – trust the data instead.  Save your gut for the creative portions of the campaign where it will be needed.

2. You think we should advertise somewhere because it’s a “special” promotion targeted right at our industry.

I hate to break it to you, but every two-bit media entity worth its salt has created bogus “special interest” offerings as a marketing ploy to appeal to advertisers.  There are “special editions” for everything now – and they even come out more than once a year.

To make matters worse, there are even entire organizations created solely for the purpose of selling worthless advertising to rubes who think they’re reaching someone.

A great example of this is the “Who’s Who” listings or “Internet Directories” for special topics.  When was the last time you looked anyone up in a “Who’s Who” book?  Carter was probably president.  The same goes for special “directories” online; as the power and accuracy of search has improved, it has rendered the need for curated directories obsolete.  You’re far better off taking all of that time and money and putting it into writing a blog to push up your rank in Google.

On Payola: By the way – if the “special promotion” includes freebies to the people buying the advertising (say, event tickets) – if you take those, it’s unethical and potentially grounds for firing at many institutions.  It constitutes a conflict of interest for you to spend money that isn’t yours in order to get something free.  You may even want to check with your Purchasing department because you may be legally-obligated to notify them or turn over that item.

3. You think we should advertise somewhere because they have special pricing available only for a limited time.

The amount of exclamation points that usually accompany the emails for these sorts of requests could fuel a mid-sized city.  Understand that these offers are invariably overvalued.  The reason they’re discounting the air time/ad space is because NO ONE ELSE WANTS IT (and there’s a reason no one else wants it).

The reason these “opportunities” are “special” is because no one else will advertise on them because they don’t reach enough people (or they’re not effective at converting eyeballs into sales).  They’re the advertising equivalent of the bargain DVD bin at Wal-mart – no one wants to own Battlefield Earth which is why it languishes even with a $2.99 price tag.  You’re literally throwing your money away – money that could be better spent with 30 seconds and a credit card on Facebook.

4. You think we should advertise somewhere because our competitors are doing it.

To be sure, there is absolutely value in benchmarking what one’s competitors are doing.  However, following the herd can be problematic for a variety of reasons.

  • First, if the herd is already there – it’s a diluted marketplace for ideas.  You’ll be trying to make noise while everyone else is trying to make noise – no one is going to hear it.  The Law of Diminishing Returns absolutely applies to advertising.
  • Second, the herd doesn’t know anything you don’t already know.  They’re not privy to some mystical insight – particularly the more members of the herd are engaging in this communal behavior the more likely it is to be outmoded because the soft middle has arrived.
  • Third,

5.  You think we should advertise somewhere whether or not we can track the response.

Media Consumption Trends 2001-2010Measurement is just as critical as Communication in a marketing/pr plan.  If you’re not worried about how we’re going to gauge the response to our efforts – I’M worried about your fitness for your job.

If you can’t find a way to verify whether or not something worked – why would you do it?  Would you have a surgery if you had no way of telling whether or not it was successful?  Would you enter a competition that didn’t track how you placed?

It’s not fun and it’s not sexy, but it is an imperative that we develop some way of measuring how many people are converted by our efforts.  Given how wildly media consumption habits are shifting right now – it’s even MORE important than any time in the past half-decade.

Moreover, ENTIRELY NEW forms of advertising are emerging all the time.  What worked this year may not work at all next year – and it’s important to track that progress.

In Summary

So “Backseat Marketers,” please – we need your input but keep it constructive and focused on the content that you are experts on.  Recycle the faxes you get with radio discounts on them instead of forwarding them to us.  Defer questions from ad sales reps to us and let us handle them (instead of allowing them to create confusion, conflict and division within our organization just because they work on commission).

How to Create the Perfect Higher Education Billboard

July 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Template for the Perfect Higher Education Billboard

Given the field I work in, I pay a lot of attention to billboard campaigns.  I suspect this makes me different from many of the publics we target.

One thing I’ve noticed in my years of careful Billboardspotting is how remarkably similar all outdoor advertising is for colleges and universities.  It’s eerie.  It’s almost as though everyone is watching what everyone else is doing and copying it in some sort of marketing feedback loop.

This is likely what is actually happening, which explains the creative entropy. Read more…