Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Today's Wall St. Journal Theme: Heroics & Online Personality Quizzes

The media always runs on themes. On any given day, the media will cover a couple of themes. If the big story is the White House intruder who got further into the White House than was first disclosed, you can expect (as we did get) stories about the Secret Service chief, another story about past problems with the Secret Service, additional background on the intruder (with quotes from family, friends and acquaintances), and more. 

It's the media's way of providing context. And broadcast, print and online media all do the same thing -- they look for trends behind the lead. The longer the main story remains significant, the harder the media has to dig to come up with some fresh angle that hasn't been covered before.

That's not what I want to talk about right now, though.

According to an old journalism adage, the definition of news is whatever interests the editor -- or the editor's spouse. Especially, sometimes, the editor's spouse.

And that can lead to mini-themes of stories and headlines that hit over the same day or time period. Sometimes they're unintentional, which makes them fun to catch. In this case, I think it's clear these mini-themes did not spring from an editor's directive.

For example, in today's Wall St. Journal, there were two stories about heroics.  But not the usual sort of heroics.

Here are two headlines from yesterday's paper:

One could make the case that both the headlines and the articles are designed to help Wall St. Journal readers feel like heroes -- even when it comes to two activities that are rarely seen as heroic: taking vacation photos or working out. If that's the case, what else could we expect to see: articles on meeting heroics? Ok, that was intended as a joke but the Journal also recently covered how to network better -- "Turn That Soul-Crushing Conference Into a Win; How to Get More Out of a Conference." So perhaps there is something to this min-trend. I will talk with our clients about pitching article ideas that position WSJ readers as winners and heroes. Meanwhile, another min-theme I've noticed involved two articles about online personality quizzes:

There are these kinds of serendipitous trends or themes all the time. It's just a matter of paying attention to them, and then thinking about if there's a way to leverage those for your clients or organization. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

What's in a Startups' Name: Five Things to Consider from a Social Media/PR Perspective

Parents often agonize before selecting a name for their child. They often study books of names to check on potential meanings. They might even check the Social Security annual list of popular names.

When it comes to entrepreneurs deciding on a name for their company, it can seem like a different story.

Instead of taking the founder's name (Ford, Dell, etc.) or picking two words to convey something about the company (
Best Buy or Home Depot), many startups picks one-word corporate names that aren't usually descriptive and often have unusual letter selections, favoring lessor used letters like V (Fivver) X,(Ameex Tech) Y (Lyft) or Z (Zlio), a number (29 Prime, Netcomm3) or some combination (X5 Networks) . 

Sometimes the startup's name combines two words into one to let you know what they do (Pinterest) while others seem to convey something but don't -- like SuperFish (a visual search company). And often enough the name is a deliberately misspelled variant (Bizness Apps or SeaSnax).

We're not in the naming business but we do work with startups that sometimes pick trendy-sounding names that cause problems for them with the media -- that's why I'm writing about this now. And this is not based on a current client. 
But we've compiled five considerations as you're developing a name for your startup.

  1. There's a thin line between interesting corporate names and dumb ones. Make sure you pick a name on the right side of that line. Not sure? Check out this article: "The 15 Dumbest Names for Web 2.0 Startups." (If you represent one of those companies, don't blame me; I just pointed out the blog post.) For an example of successful naming, check out this Eddie Izzard clip about the singer once known as Jerry Dorsey.
  2. Your name is also your major brand identify. (Again someone else can help you pick wisely, for example, check out "5 Startup Naming Rules from SXSW.") Which means, you should make sure a URL, Twitter ID, and other social media platforms are available for your startup. Keep in mind: even if your name is a made up name, with odd spelling, someone else could already have that name, as we found out for a couple of past clients with rather unusual names. (This was not a case of brandjacking because the Twitter IDs had been created before the startups had been a gleam in the eye of the founders.) This left the clients with two options 1) Find another way to represent your company and brand, or 2) Try to negotiate and buy the URL, Twitter or Instagram ID. There is a downside to both those options.
  3. Make sure you and all your employees know how to spell it. That's not as simple as it sounds, even if you're working with a naming company. Take real companies like SwiftPage, Onesource Virtual, epTonics, Stemexpress and Jaybird -- all of them have capitalization errors -- it should be Swiftpage and OneSource, and EPTonics but there's nothing inherent in those names to guide you. So you can be sure people won't necessarily know how to spell your brand. It can get worse. I knew of a company that used an exclamation point to replace the "I" that was the first letter in its name; all the coverage we generated in national media outlets refused to use the "!"; instead they used an "I."
  4. Make sure you and your employees know how to pronounce your company, including how to pronounce the vowels and which syllable to emphasis. For example, the Brits pronounce a lot of words differently; like Al-u-MIN-e-uhm for Aluminum or herb with a strong H as if it were short for Herbert. Inconsistent pronunciation could put customers and employees in an awkward situation of having to correct other people.
  5. If you make up a name, you should research to make sure it doesn't have any not-safe-for-work connotations. Or ironic implications. The famous example is the Chevy Nova, which did not sell as expected when exported to Latin America -- that's because someone forgot to see if Nova meant something else in Spanish. It does: it means no go or doesn't go. With a new name, it might have sold well in Spanish-speaking countries. But it's helpful to have a story about why your corporate name fits your culture, market, etc. We've come across (non-clients especially) whose companies have interesting name but no compelling backstory. The backstory can be important because it can help make the company name more memorable.
My goal here is not to embarrass any organization but we've found that sometimes these issues are not considered when companies are named, and by the time they're ready to launch, it can be too late to make a change. And that can affect how we pitch the client to the media. (It's not good for anyone if we have to spend much of our time on the phone explaining how to pronounce the client's name.)

Let me know if you have any PR- or social media-related stories regarding poorly thought out corporate names.

Monday, August 25, 2014

7 Tips on Developing a 3rd-Party Spokespeople Database

One things many companies, especially start-ups, need to do is to recruit customers to serve as third-party spokespeople to provide quotes for the media and analysts as well as talk with prospective customers.

One of the challenges of enlisting customers is to make sure you have a database set up to take advantage of the customers, their different stories -- so that they don't remain only in the heads of the sales people.

Here are some steps to consider as you develop a compelling customer spokesperson program:

  1. Create a template of contact info: The template is important to make it easy to gather and search among your different customer. The template should include sections that include the general story for which they could serve as a spokesperson as well as customer segment, internal sales rep, etc. 
  2. Write a letter to explain this initiative: To explain what you're looking in terms of the program and their help. This will help customers understand their commitment.
  3. Design media training guidelines: This is to help customers know how to describe your company and product. (You might be surprised that even enthusiastic clients might not describe you and your product the way you would like them too.)
  4. Develop standard internal interview questions: This will make the database consistent so you will have a better idea of what the customer is willing to do, which can range from a willingness to talk with the media based on a background-only basis (i.e., not for direct attribution), talking to the media on a first-name-only basis (Norman, a father of three, said…), providing an attributed quote willing to provide photo, willing to talk only to analysts or some customers, only, etc.
  5. Create a process to triage media opportunities. This is important to help work with reporters, who are often on deadline, along with customers, who are often busy working on their own jobs. Part of that process should streamline the demands on your customers, provide your customers with background on the opportunity so they can feel comfortable conducting the interview, easily confirm interview times, and provide them with any resulting coverage (which they can use internally).
  6. Distribute periodic updates/info about your company: Once you have identified the customers who have agreed to serve as spokespeople, and once you have interviewed them, you need to make sure they are up-to-speed on the latest developments in your products and company -- so that they can talk to reporters about current products and direction.  Depending on the number of customers willing to serve as spokespeople, these updates can be distributed as part of a newsletter or as part of personalized outreach to these customers.
  7. Check in personally to make sure the client continues to be happy. Beyond updates on your business, it's important to check in to make sure your client continues to be happy. This is an important way to maintain the quality of your third-party spokesperson program. For example, customers may move within or leave their organization, and the worst time to find out is when you're trying to get them to talk with a reporter on deadline. Periodic check-ins enable you to keep the list current. 
Following these tips by themselves won't guarantee a successful third-party spokesperson program. But they are essential to running a smooth, efficient program. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

7 Tips for Welcoming Reporters at Events

In this age of webinars and online events, it can be easy to forget that there are still a lot of in-person events that may require to check-in attendees, events like conferences, trade shows, galas, annual meetings and press conferences. Organizations remember to provide VIP guests with special care and handling but sometimes overlook the fact that media attendees also need special care when being checked in to an event.  

Based on more than two decades of working with reporters at press conferences, trade shows and other events, here are some best practices on how to handle media.

1.   Make sure the media qualifications/credentialing process is up-to-date. Ten years ago, to be considered a member of the media, one had to be either a staff reporter or editor or a freelance writer with a number of recent clips. These days, bloggers, podcasters and others are now considered media – and turning such people away could cause more problems via negative blog posts, tweets, etc.
2.   Maintain a separate, up-to-date media database. To be effective, media relations teams must research and maintain a database of their key reporters. Because reporters move around so often these days, media databases are valuable only if they are kept up-to-date. Often times, when reporters show up to register to attend a conference or event, they often provide updated information that is important to capture.
3.   Make it easy for reporters to register and check in. Consider offering online registration to speed onsite registration, and make sure to have pre-printed press badges, blank extras on hand for last-minute walk-ins, along with extra press kits (whether electronic, on flash drives or paper). Also consider having a separate registration area, with clear signage, and trained personnel to check reporters in – particularly reporters who, at the last minute, have decided to attend an event, which means their names may not be in the media database. Having a separate registration station means that reporters won’t get in the way of other VIP attendees such as speakers, sponsors and benefactors, board members, etc.
4.   Make it easy to capture walk-in reporters’ contact info. If reporters walk up to the same registration tables as the general public, their information may not get forwarded to the correct people. If a walk-in reporter’s information goes to a general volunteer, it may get lost, making it difficult to track media attendees and to follow-up with them afterwards. It is vital that media contact info gets forwarded to the media list for future events; instead, if contact info gets included in non-media databases, it will be impossible to find that data and to use it to the organization's advantage in the future.
5.   Train key staffers on how to work with reporters.  Untrained volunteers can actually damage relationships that an organization needs to maintain with reporters. For example, a couple of years ago, at a nonprofit's big event, a well meaning volunteer turned away a wire service reporter, who walked walked away in a huff, and never wrote about the organization.  On the other hand, trained volunteers and staffers would know how and be empowered to handle reporters, especially walk-ins, who otherwise might be turned away. Reporters are looking for a quick, efficient way to check in; they want to work with people who know how to work with them. Organizations can easily get a reputation for being unprofessional and hard to work with, and it’s important to take the steps to prevent your organization from being seen in that light.
6.   Identify locations, times, etc. that may offer better photo and story opportunities. Reporters often rely on the people registering to help them get a sense of where they can find good visuals, good stories, etc.  Make sure the content you've developed is shareable by social media, which includes using a hashtag for your event.Typically, general volunteers are focused on separate issues, and end up being a hindrance to reporters, which again could damage a relationship. Those trained in how to deal with the media, on the other hand, can enhance the trust necessary for strong relationships with reporters.
7.  Make sure to follow-up appropriately. While reporters usually don’t like “follow-up calls,” it’s different if you are able to offer photos, video, audio or other content, including interviews with people they weren't able to get. These calls are part of the process of helping reporters so consider asking their feedback in terms of what could be improved to help the media cover similar events in the future. For example, years ago, after a reporter complained about the sound quality at the back of the room where the TV cameras were positioned, I’ve always made sure to have technology in place that can enhance the audio feed.

Checking in reporters professionally and efficiently with the help of people trained and equipped to work with media can make a big difference in the relationship that organizations can build and maintain with those reporters. 

Let me know if you have other tips.

Monday, July 28, 2014

What Happens to Forbes, Now That Has Been Sold

Earlier this month, I wrote a column for CommProBiz called "What the Selling of Forbes Tells Us about the State of Business Media" that raised some key points about the health of business media, namely:
  • Establishing a strong brand is important for readers and advertisers but can be difficult to truly monetize.
  • Standalone magazine companies are at a disadvantage to conglomerates that can spread costs and profits across a family of magazines. 
  • The value shoring up Forbes is not its free popular website or its steady level of subscribers — but its conference division. 
  • Forbes is very creative in finding revenue but not all ways of charging access -- like paywalls (which Forbes does not have) or separate digital subscriptions (which it does) -- are reader friendly. 
Soon afterwards, on July 18, Forbes, which had put itself up for auction in the fall of 2013, announced that it had sold itself for more than $300 million to Integrated Whale Media Investments, a Hong Kong investor group. The asking price had been above $400 million, and the Wall St. Journal had said some "traditional media companies" had offered bids of $200 million but were rebuffed by Forbes. The valuation of Forbes Media is at $475 million, roughly what the family had been asking for.

As part of the sale, Elevation Partners is selling its entire stake. According to the Wall St. Journal, Elevation Partners, which had invested $264 million in 2006, "would recoup substantially all of its investment." Which is to say: Elevation did not make money on owning a portion of Forbes. 

Additionally, "The Forbes family will take some cash out as well, although the precise amount isn't known." Which means the Forbes family has limited its potential liabilities without making much money on the deal.

Meanwhile, here are a few key facts about the business of Forbes from the sale include:
  • Forbes's print circulation increased in 2014 to 6.1 million, a record for the magazine and much higher than competitor Fortune (at 3.6 million, down from 3.8 million a year earlier). However, Forbes offered heavily discounted subscription fees that shored up its print circulation.
  • Print advertising has continued to drop, declining 11% to 650 pages compared with 2013. (Fortune's ad sales declined 4.7% to 665 pages over the same period.
  • Traffic to Forbes's websites increased 17% to 27.7 million unique desktop and mobile visitors last month in the U.S., which makes Forbes the third-largest business and financial news provider online behind Yahoo and Dow Jones.
In my next blog post, I'll address the editorial implications of the sale of Forbes.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Top 7 Things to Understand about Magazines' Lists

If the age of social media and native advertising has taught us anything, it's that people love lists: 
  • "15 ways to waste more time on the Internet."
  • "10 useless facts that will bore your friends at cocktail parties."
  • "10 secrets to reduce procrastination." 
Those aren't real lists but they aren't so far off from native advertising articles (my favorite native ad headline of the day: "Warren Buffett Tells You How to Turn $40 Into $10 Million." Native ads are so prevalent, that The Onion recently launched a spinoff site called Clickhole that serves up faux native ad-like headlines and stories. The main problem is that the blurred line between Clickhole stories and real, unironic native ads.)

No business publication "gets" the importance of lists than Forbes, which researches, compiles and publishes dozens of lists each year, beyond the iconic Forbes 400 of the wealthiest Americans (by which Forbes tends to mean U.S. citizens or residents).

Here's our own list based on Forbes' range of lists.

  1. You can never have too many different flavors of lists. In addition to the Forbes 400, Forbes also publishes the Worlds Richest Billionaires issue; "Richest Families in the U.S."; as well as the "Best & Worst Cities for Jobs," "The Best Cities for Business"; "The World's Most Powerful Celebrities" and "The Top Earning Actors" and "The Highest Paid Athletes" and don't forget: "Superheroes of the Celeb 100" and the "Richest Fictional Characters." (Seriously -- Mr. Monopoly ranked #13.) Several lists seem like variations of another list; the most powerful celebs includes top earning actors and athletes.
  2. Publishing lists as a slideshow can be great because each click improves the traffic counts on your website. Instead of printing the top 10 of a list on one page, which generates only one click, slides of the top 10 whatevers generates 10 clicks.
  3. Lists work best when they are quantifiable, which is why Forbes allocates resources to compile these lists. But there is a lot that can be hard to pin down, even when it comes to net worth. A lot of other lists are subjective, even as they try to apply some framework to the list. For example, Forbes ranks author John Green at 79 on the Most Powerful List, with JK Rowling at 84 -- really? Perhaps it's a nuance of power, but I would think Rowling still has more "power" to get published and movies made than John Green (not to take away from Green) but perhaps Forbes has a different definition of "power."
  4. Realize that most rankings are designed to generate a barroom discussion and are not scientific. Most rankings should be taken with a grain of salt. What stars earn each year can be variable, with payouts dependent on sponsorships and multi-album deals. Same for CEOs and stock options.  
  5. Even if Forbes provides some quantifiable numbers, there's a lot of guesswork and sometimes those numbers don't really matter. On the "Most Powerful Celebrities" list, which looks at earnings, money rank, press rank and social rank, LeBron James is ranked number 2 (after Beyonce). But King James' scored 19 on the money rank and 22 on the social rank; his highest ranking was the press rank at 9 -- so how can Forbes justify his top-two ranking? Well Forbes adds a "cultural figure," which is not clearly defined.
  6. There are always questionable selections. Some of the stars on the Most Powerful list certainly deserve to be there -- Beyonce, LeBron, Dr. Dre, Oprah, Ellen, Jay Z, people known by their first names. But some of the rankings are questionable: Does Floyd Mayweather belong at #7? Roger Federer at #16, the Eagles at #36, One Direction at #28, Justin Bieber at #33? That doesn't include some folks I haven't heard of (because that may say more about me than them). Then there are celebs who don't seem particularly powerful like Avicci (#47), Kate Upton (#94), Kaley Cuoco (#99) and therefore don't belong on the list at all.
  7. The teams that compile these lists do not always read the rest of the magazine -- and vice versa. On the very next page of the printed edition, Forbes reported that Michael Jordan is now a billionaire.  Here's the news blurb in its entirety from Forbes' "Scorecard" column: "Jordan never retired. Still earning $90 million a year selling shoes, he ups his stake in the NBA Charlotte Hornets and becomes the first NBA star worth a billion." If I were compiling a list of "Most Powerful Celebrities," I would have included Michael Jordan.
I don't mean to pick on Forbes or that particular list. I like lists as much as the next person but at some point, most are subjective, and that's okay. Cases in point: People's "Most Beautiful" and "Sexiest Man Alive" lists, various magazine's Best (and Worst) Dressed lists, and hundreds more. I think it is helpful to understand how the lists are compiled and why publications rely on them as long as readers take most of them with a grain of salt.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wall St. Journal & Boston Globe Validate Biotech Bubble Trend

The validation is coming in fast and furious regarding our biotech bubble prediction. We said:
Stock market and the biotech bubble. 2014 will be marked by concerns about the health of the stock market. Of the different sectors, rising biotech shares will generate growing concern of a biotech bubble. That concern will affect all parts of the industry, especially startups as VCs start getting nervous about their portfolios. Implications: There’s not much publicly held companies can do – except, as a Forbes reporter once told us, have you company “do better…and boost its share price.” We just think it’s important to understand how editors allocate their resources (reporters’ time and the outlets’ news hole).
The Wall St. Journal validated that with an article, "Hot New Biotech Knows Roller-Coaster Feeling" and the Boston Globe validated it with "After boom, 2014 repeat for biotech is uncertain."

We know that talking about bubbles can take on a certain air on inevitability, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. We hope we're wrong in this case.