Sunday, December 15, 2019

Thoughts on Thought Leadership & 7 Elements for Successful Thought Leadership Campaigns

The press release is still a useful tool when you have news, like an acquisition, a new product, an event, etc. 

But with the decline of traditional media (meaning: smaller staffs and fewer print pages) combined with the ascendency of social media, companies must look beyond announcements to communicate who they are and what they stand for as part of their marketing and branding initiatives.

This article is designed to offer some perspectives on Thought Leadership based on extensive experience that includes helping clients generate new business and led to acquisitions in excess of a quarter of a billion dollars.

What is Thought Leadership?

Thought Leadership is a form of content marketing designed to establish a company's senior executives as having interesting insights and perspectives on issues important to customers. Thought Leadership topics must be timely, relevant, credible and interesting, and can include:
  • Blog articles (such as this one).
  • Social media posts (such as the ones we'll post to cross-promote this blog).
  • Contributed articles to key publications and media.
  • Newsletters and direct emails.
  • Case studies and white papers (though we're seeing more interest in shorter-than-traditional white papers). 
  • Podcasts.
  • Speeches (which can be repurposed as content for a blog post, a podcast and social media).
  • Surveys or reports on interesting issues. (For example, for one cybersecurity client, we offered quarterly updates on key threats. For a nonprofit, we issued an annual look an important issue, based on a consumer survey, facing its constituency; the results were widely picked up and sparked national coverage.) 
Really, Thought Leadership anyway you can get your message out to audiences that matter to you. 

Why Should Companies Consider Thought Leadership? 
People like to know who their buying from, and like to buy from companies whose values are aligned with theirs. Partly that's because, especially with consumer items, we define ourselves to an extent by the items we purchase: our cars, clothes, technology and other items may help to define our self-perceptions and say something about who we are. (Remember the "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" commercials?) 

Interestingly, this is true for B2B customers as it is for consumers.

Need evidence of that? On this blog, we've discussed the rise of corporate boycotts: "boycotts by companies in order to demonstrate distance from controversial programs and personalities" and as a way to show support for their customers. 

So it's important to clearly define "who" your company is and what it stands for, and Thought Leadership is a way to communicate that.

What are the Benefits of a Thought Leadership Campaign?
Thought Leadership is a way to engage with customers, potential customers as well as employees and potential employees and partners by providing thoughts and insights on issues that matter to them. 

With an effective Thought Leadership campaign, companies can:
  • Establish credibility by showcasing expertise on key topics and encourage innovation.
  • Start conversations with prospective customers by addressing topics that are important to them. 
  • Differentiate themselves from the competition and raise awareness of the company.
  • Define who they are by discussing corporate values.
  • Establish a sense of community.
  • Provide content that can educate and help to qualify customers. (We had one startup client who said that after a campaign we conducted, "The number of calls coming in did not increase -- but the number of calls from people who understood clearly what we do increased by 90%." This was a significant time savings for them because the calls that came in were from people who were better positioned to buy the product.)
  • Improve their SEO rankings by generating more searchable content.
  • Provide another way to provide context on a news announcement. (Recently a blog we wrote about an acquisition of a client was repurposed and included by several reporters looking for more detail than was communicated in the deal press release.)
  • Make it easier to close sales.
Where Does Thought Leadership Fit into the Sales Cycle?
You may have noticed that the last bullet point immediate above stated "Make it easier to close sales" but not "Closes sales."

Thought Leadership can have a call to action (CTA) -- like subscribe to a free newsletter, download a white paper, schedule a demo or sign up for a free trial -- to turn your audience into a sales lead. 

But -- and this is important -- without the expectation that a Thought Leadership piece will lead to a direct sale. It shouldn't be all about your product or service offerings. That's a turnoff for most people. For example, Rubbermaid has received recognition for helping customers stay organized, with tips that include Rubbermaid products without the hard sell of the ABC (Always Be Closing) of selling. People look for Thought Leadership content that will help them solve issues they're dealing with but they don't always want to be sold to. 

Instead, Thought Leadership is about showing customers that you understand what business problems keeps them up at night and having perspectives on key issues and topics they need to address during the day. It's about providing helpful insight and showing that a company is engaged and relevant and is willing to help. It's about building trust and establishing credibility.

When Should You Consider Launching a Thought Leadership Campaign?

Organizations that don't have a lot of news but have a lot of insight and expertise to share are ideal candidates for Thought Leadership.

This is especially true for clients that have complicated stories to tell because their customers likely have complex issues to solve, and Thought Leadership via blog posts can tackle complex stories in a way that press releases, Twitter and LinkedIn can't.

For example, we had a client CEO -- very smart guy, who felt he didn't have much to say as a Thought Leader. He ran U.S. operations for a global software developer, but the U.S. was one of its smaller divisions. First we had to convince him that a blog was the best way to tell their story because of the absence of hard news that reporters like to write about. reluctantly, he signed off on the blog. Within a few months, we started seeing interesting results. The blog articles were cited by current customers, who helped spread the word. Traffic to the website increased, and we started getting recognition for the blog from the other regions within the company. Our direct clients were invited to the company's exclusive global marketing meeting to discuss the success of the Thought Leadership blog, and our content was frequently picked up by the folks in other regions.

We found that blog provided us with a way to tell the company's story in a way that would not have been as effective if we had focused only on traditional media.

For a biotech client that started off focusing on media relations, we added a social media component to be able to address issues important to their customers. Through its blog, the company discusses trends, industry changes, and mostly, tips on how to work smarter, get projects completed faster and on budget. The client has seen significant growth over the past five years, recognition among its peers for pioneering (in their industry) social media, and validation in the form of being acquired by a billion-dollar global company. The client has told us over the year that awareness among prospects has been high because they see a lot of valuable content. And the acquirer company was interested in part because of the client's successful Thought Leadership campaign. 

What are The Elements of a Successful Thought Leadership Campaign?
Here are 7 important elements:
  1. Understand your customers and develop content that addresses the problems they deal with. 
Your expertise is important but Thought Leadership really starts with a good sense of what drives your customers. Some clients have based their knowledge on annual customer meetings, input from sales reps or relationship managers. Whatever works well for your organization, make sure you're focused on issues relevant to your customers' issues.
  1. Address customers' questions and offer real advice. 
For one client, where pricing was an issue, we discussed pricing transparently (something not usually done in their sector) and offer a lot of articles about how to save money. If you see this as an opportunity to just sell product, no one will read your stuff and you will lose credibility.
  1. Stay relevant and timely. 
We can all get caught up with other aspects of our jobs so that we miss timely connections for Thought Leadership. We generally develop a quarterly roadmap that looks at events and calendar items to connect to blog articles. That said, also make sure to write some content that is specifically timeless – what reporters call “evergreen” because it’s useful now and next year. 

4.  Give your Thought Leadership some personality. 

People want advice but they don't want a lecture so your Thought Leadership should be engaging, convey a sense of the clients' individual personality and interesting. Don't talk down to the reader. 

5.  Make it interactive.  

You can invite customers or partners write a guest blog or include interviews with industry people you respect. It could be a great opportunity to profile a customer or a partner, and enhance their credibility – and yours by showcasing smart people.  

6.  Be patient but also be committed to Thought Leadership. 

Successful Thought Leadership has to be built over time to establish credibility. It doesn’t come with a flip of the switch. You should figure out if you have the time to develop your voice and the budget and resources to launch a campaign. You don’t need to post every day, just find a consistent pattern. But Thought Leadership is something of a treadmill – you need to keep going with it. It’s kind of sad to see an abandoned blog or Twitter feed. The company may still be doing fine but an abandoned social media feed leaves people wondering about the viability and commitment of the company. 

7.  Remember to repurpose and cross-promote.  

You should consider repurposing content to play across different channels. For example, we once took a client’s white paper that had underperformed (written before we started working for the client) and broke it out into nearly 75 different tweets, which included a CTA every five or six tweets. Doing so gave us useful social media content and generated a wave of downloads months after the white paper had been published, which helped justify the costs.

Because you never know where your audience will be, you should cross-promote content across all channels to reach your audience wherever they might be (which could be Twitter on Monday, LinkedIn on Tuesday, LinkedIn on Wednesday and Instagram on Thursday)

Thought Leadership is an important tool for marketers. If you have more questions about Thought Leadership campaigns, let us know what they are, and we'll answer them in a forthcoming post. Or feel free to contact us at blog at

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

TrendReport for 2019: A Look Back at What We Got Right and What We Didn't

Each year since 2001, Birnbach Communications issues a set of trends and predictions, which we call TrendReport, for the upcoming year.

A lot of people issue trends but we pride ourselves on also looking back to see how well we did with the prior year's predictions. Here is this year's report card: 
  1. The growing number of streaming content services make consumers harder to reach. With the launches of Disney+ and Apple TV+, NBC’s Peacock (April 2020), and HBO Max (May 2020), along Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and CBS All Access, consumers will pay at least $60 per month (not including Peacock, which is free for Comcast cable customers). That’s $720 per year before figuring out cable or Internet – and even if you cut the cord from cable, you still need to pay for Internet. All this time watching video on our devices make it harder for marketers to reach consumers. Grade: A.
  2. The age of the mass media is mostly over. We said that “It’s a niche world now,” and we feel that is accurate. Marketers can now reach very specific audiences but are finding it harder and more expensive to reach mass audiences. One of the resulting problems is that it exacerbates polarization, even in terms of what we watch. According to Axios, there’s a split in what we as a nation watch. There’s a self-fulfilling aspect to this because we all used to watch the same programs and talk about them the next day. But that doesn’t happen as much anymore, resulting in more isolation. Grade: A.
  3. The broken business model for news will cause continued problems in 2019, including an increase in “news deserts.” We said, “It’s not only print media that will struggle in 2019, online media will struggle, too.” We’re sorry to be right about this. We’re seeing many news deserts, communities with limited access to news even in Massachusetts. Although the New York Times, Washington Post and a few other newspapers  are doing well, the business model for the rest of the industry still hasn’t been solved. Grade: A.
  4. Social media will continue to undergo scrutiny and it won’t look good. This will continue in 2020, and still there won’t be any adequate solution. Grade: A.
  5. More apps will try to combat fake news. Unfortunately, some of the sites – and this is the list we named last year: The Trust Project, News Integrity Initiative NewsGuardThe Journalism Trust InitiativeAccountability Journalism ProgramTrusting NewsTrust & News Initiative and the oddly named Media Manipulation Initiative – did not appear to make it through Dec. 2019. From our perspective, facts and credible news is more important than ever for our democracy as well as for organizations trying to reach and engage their audiences. Grade: C.
  6.  The shorter/faster news cycle is distracting Americans and causing news fatigue. We are suffering from news fatigue -- overwhelmed by news notifications on our phones that seems to buzz every hour. One of the most overused phrases on TV news this year has been: “There’s a lot to unpack” about the day’s (or hour’s) latest breaking news story. Expect to hear “news avoidance” to describe people who feel overwhelmed and have decided to follow the news. Grade: A.
  7. The incredible shrinking newsroom. This is connected to #3. Unfortunately, we were correct about this one, too: in 2019, “7,700 people have lost their jobs so far this year in a media landslide,” according to Business Insider. Those jobs aren’t coming back. Grade: A.
  8. The credibility of news media is under attack. Unfortunately, this is a real problem on social media. We continue to feel that this is a significant real problem for PR functions and agencies who work with reporters, editors and producers to tell their clients' stories. If there are those who disbelieve the New York Times or Wall St. Journal, will they believe your organization's news in those or other outlets? Grade: A. 
  9. The war on screen time. There will be greater acknowledgment that we’re all on screens too much throughout the day. We’re spending nearly four hours each day on our devices so this is definitely an issue, particularly with warnings to parents about the amount of time their children spend on devices. According to several studies, including one published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, there is an association between screen time and anxiety and depression among adolescents, and we feel there’s a connection for adults, too. The topic didn’t generate as much media attention as we expected it would, which is why we’re not giving us an A. Grade: B.
  10. The state of the economy, including a volatile stock market, trade wars, trade deals and tariffs, taxes, deficits and unemployment will get a lot of attention in 2019. We’re still not taking sides, and the topic did get media attention in 2019 but it was not as big a story as we expected. Grade: B+.
  11. Brexit, if it happens, will be big news. We thought it would happen but it didn’t happen. It still generated coverage. Grade: C.
  12. Student debt levels and Millennial’s financial habits. Will continue to be a theme in 2020. Grade: B+.
  13. The state of healthcare will get attention. Outside of a campaign issue, there wasn’t as much discussion as we expected in 2019; we still think it will be a hot campaign issue in 2020. Grade: B-.
  14. Election reforms will get discussed on op-ed pages. This did not get the attention we expected. Grade: C-.
  15. Climate control and extreme weather will be a big story. This was a big story, thanks to Greta Thunberg. Grade: A.
  16. Gun control and the state of the NRA. We said “we do believe there will be discussion/coverage in the media in 2019 about what can be done” about gun control but no progress was made. Grade: B.
That's a B+, which is pretty good. We're now preparing our trends and predictions for 2020, and hope we do as well, and expect many of the 2019 trends to continue. 

Check back soon for more details.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Birnbach Communications Celebrates 18 Years with Highlights from 2019

Birnbach Communications celebrated its 18th anniversary in 2019, and we'd like to thank all our clients over the years. 

We love working for our clients. We enjoy getting their brief and figuring different ways to help our clients achieve their goals. There's a solving-the-puzzle aspect that sparks our creativity and passion as we develop and recommend strategic approaches. 

And we love generating positive results for our clients. We love the work of brainstorming angles, developing compelling pitches, and working with the media. Getting hits for our clients is something that never gets old for us. (We may want to score significant placements or to write strong content more than our clients.)

It's been a wild ride so far, and this year brought about a number of highlights, including: 
  1. Securing placements in TechWeb and Politico for our newest client, a startup developing robots for lunar exploration.
  2. Continuing to support our longest-term client, Seqens NA, a biotech we first started working for eight years ago. What we're particularly proud about Seqens is how our program continues to evolve as their needs change, helping them they stay relevant even as its business and the media world has dramatically changed over time.  
  3. Writing and placing more than 15 bylined articles published in a range of publications including the Forbes Technology Council along with more than 150 blog articles on a range of topics for our clients. 
  4. Having a successful ebook of our articles published by a client.
  5. Writing continue to drive traffic to clients' websites, particularly because our content produced new subscribers to their blogs and newsletters. Many of those blog articles are repurposed and get published in credible industry publications. 
  6. Securing dozens of media interviews that resulted in coverage and enhanced relationships for our clients.  
  7. Winning new several clients in 2019 while keeping ongoing clients
  8. Expanding our international reach with current clients based in the U.K., Germany, France and Canada.
  9. Working across categories including LED lighting and clean tech, robotics, AI, space exploration, programmatic advertising, fintech, biotech and life sciences, STEM, as well as the travel and meetings industry.
  10. Supporting clients at key trade shows including IMEX Frankfurt, IMEX America (in Las Vegas), SpacecomInternational Astronautical Congress, LightFair and others.
  11. Launching new products including a line of LED fixtures, clean tech roofing paints, and medical-alert tattoos as an alternative to medical ID jewelry.
  12. Generating coverage in top-tier media including Politico, The Economist, NPR, TechCrunch and Forbes Technology Council
  13. Helping clients win awards and recognition including being ranked as one of the largest CleanTech companies in Massachusetts and getting a client named "3 Trends at the International Roofing Expo" by Buildings magazine. 
Our work this year in media relations and thought leadership helped our clients raise awareness, supported their lead-gen program, and ensured they remain relevant and in front of current and prospective customers, investors and funders.

We can't wait to build on this year's success in 2020!

Monday, April 15, 2019

More on the Death of Retail

The economy may chugging along but the retail sector is falling behind.

Way behind. 

As of April, 2019 has seen more store closings (or announcements of store closings) than all of 2018. According to Coresight Research as reported in the New York Times, there have already been 5,994 store closings by April, exceeding the 5,854 stores that closed in all of 2018. The good news: we still have a ways to go to reach 2017's record of store closings of more than 8,000.

There is one bright spot: the number of discount or dollar stores is booming because they are less susceptible than other retailers to e-commerce. (On a recent college tour in upstate New York, one of our team members saw plenty of dollar stores in some of the more rural areas.) 

But total store openings are stalled. There have been 2,641 store openings announced compared with 3,239 openings last year.

As an agency, we don't handle retail clients -- although the head of the agency spent several years supporting a provider of retail technology -- so you may wonder why we're so focused on retail.

We think it's the canary of the economy. There's clearly a shift in how people shop and purchase, and often it's away from bricks-and-mortar stores even as once web-only retailers like Amazon or Warby Parker now open retail locations.

But the trend seems to be more store closings, which leads to shrinking local ad revenues (because shuttered retailers don't take out ads to promote sales), which hurts journalism. In rural area, there's been a decline in local news coverage, according to the Pew Research Center. That's a real problem because that kind of local coverage is unlikely to return.

Behind the somewhat self-interest in the state of journalism, shuttered retail locations means fewer people working, and a potentially emptying out of main street stores and nearby malls. You can see the negative impact even in places like Manhattan's SoHo district, and it makes a difference, not only affecting real estate but communities beyond. A Bloomberg Businessweek article a while back depicted the problems faced by some towns in the UK, where retailers had left, which meant residents had to travel twice as far to buy things. Which meant that new residents are less likely to move there.  And that could cause a further spiraling effect.

None of which is good.

We don't have a solution, and we're not suggesting drastic measures to curtail Amazon and others' market power.

We just think it's an important issue, and one we've been regularly mentioning in this blog for the past several years. We also discuss other topics that impact journalism and PR. 

Monday, April 1, 2019

John Oliver Validates Our Prediction about Robocalls

Back in Feb., we published a blog, 4 New Predictions + 17 Ongoing Trends for 2019 that identified robocalls as "an issue everyone can support. We all get too many robocalls, whether on our cell phones or land lines."

A month later, in March, John Oliver caught up with our prediction.

In fact, he described the situation this way:
"Everybody is annoyed by robocalls. Hatred of them might be the only thing that everyone in American agrees on now."
He then goes into greater detail about why robocalls have gotten more prevalent. And then leads to a hilarious partial least to get the FCC's attention to the matter so that the agency puts in place solutions to address the robocall problem.


Monday, March 25, 2019

7 Tips For An Effective Content Development Program

A new client on a short deadline, recently asked us: "How can we (the client) help you (the agency) to go as fast as possible?"

It's a great question, and this blog will address some best tips based on our years of experience.
  1. Make sure you have a clear idea of what you want. That's not always possible, especially when you're trying something new. Sometimes you have to see an initial draft before being able to realize what you like or don't like. But we've found that the clearer you can be about the goals, intent and the role this initiative is playing in your organization, the better the outcome. That's true even if your initial draft takes you down the wrong path. 
  2. Be decisive and clear when you provide feedback. Again, we know this can be difficult, especially when trying something new. But vague comments like, “I just don’t like it” aren’t helpful because it doesn’t provide enough input about what to correct and why. And second-guessing sends mixed signals and typically results in delays.
  3. Plan for convergence. It's important to develop a cross-channel strategy to reach audiences different ways but it sometimes gets overlooked. To reach different audiences across different channels requires planning at the start. Or else you end up with the next issue.
  4. Be aware of mission creep. This can occur during the edit phase when someone says, "You know what would be great? How about if we did …" Sometimes the additional ask is not a big deal, like can you come up with a caption for the photo we now want to accompany the content. But sometimes, an additional ask reflects a change in priorities, an additional element, and moving the goal posts, and that all adds up, delaying when the project will be ready. And that can require unallocated resources -- at the client and at the agency.
  5. Have a clear process to review/approval process. You need enough people to weigh but too many people offering feedback can lead to problems: such as version control (with executives working off of different versions of the document) or differing priorities. This almost always resulting in time lags, especially if someone has to adjudicate contrary feedback (where one exec loves the second paragraph but another hates it). 
  6. Make sure to involve everyone is involved who should be involved. We've seen projects where different functions are not in the same room, even though the project would benefit from their input. In one case, the social media team wasn't connected to a client's biggest announcement of the year; their posts on announcement day were about an upcoming webinar but nothing about the new product. Lesson learned: make sure to different functions are able to contribute and collaborate. These days, you might need to bring in both your CTO and CMO as well as some of your marketing vendors, who by collaborating, may generate better results. 
  7. Take your time but not too much. Once we hand something in, we're often inpatient for feedback. It's one thing if clients say they'll be able to review the document on Thursday. It can be a real problem if we have to spend our time tracking down approvals. (This is often the case if need to get approval from a third-party, who often has other priorities and may be doing our client a favor.) We can estimate the time it takes to research, write, edit and revise a document. But it's difficult to estimate how long and how much effort it takes to get content approved, which is why this can be an important element to address in advance.

We want to do our best work and to deliver something that meets your goals. Especially at the start of project requiring a quick turn-around, it is important at the start clearly define the goals, expectations, timelines, approval process and what to do if there's a problem.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Wall St. Journal Validates Our Ongoing Prediction that Retail is in Trouble

One of the trends we predicted for 2019 is that there will be increased scrutiny about the state of the U.S. economy, which has become the longest recovery in the country's history.

We don't want to jinx it but we've long looked at two industries going through downward spirals: retail and journalism. And the reason we follow both industries is the belief that they are canaries as being early indicators.

The latest bad news for retail was a report that Dec. 2018 holiday sales was the worst Dec. since 2009. According to the Wall St. Journal, a soft retail market raises new questions about the economy. We've also seen other articles reporting more chains are closing stores or shutting down completely. 

Retail is an important sector because it also effects real estate and other businesses because empty store fronts reduce foot traffic to the area, providing fewer reasons to shop at other stores on the block. This is true in the UK, where the demise of main street (known there as high street) stores in some towns means residents have to drive 30 minutes or more to find things they used to be able to get in town. (Bloomberg Businessweek did a story within the past year or so about the downward spiral affect this has had on the general economic health of smaller towns.) But we've seen this happen in big cities too. (The New York Times did a story last year or two about the decimation of high-end stores in SOHO.)

And since retail is an employee-intensive business, when stores shut down, people are out of jobs. And while unemployment is low, fewer stores means fewer employees who may not be able to land another retail job or transition to a job in another industry. 

Fewer local retail stores means fewer ads in local media. And that leads to the problem with journalism.

Keep in mind, journalism as a product is generally doing well. Americans are paying attention to the news, if only because they're getting hourly news notifications on their phones.

But the business of journalism is suffering. 

People are accessing news on the phones, often not paying for content. They're not subscribing -- paying -- for the news and digital ads generate less money than traditional print ads. So news organizations have to contend with demand for news but generally with fewer subscribers and fewer (and less expensive) ads.

Which is not sustainable. 

The result: "Media Industry Job Cuts Nearly Tripled Last Year," WWD recently reported, noting, "A study from an industry outplacement firm said 2018 was the worst year for media in a decade. This year isn’t shaping up so well already." The article provided some unpleasant facts:
Companies operating in news, broadcast news and publishing, television and film and music cut just under 15,500 jobs last year, an increase of 281 percent over 2017 when 4,060 jobs were cut, making it the worst year for jobs in the industry since 2009, according to a study from industry outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc. In 2009, media companies cut about 22,350 jobs.
And this year may be worse. Already, in Q1 alone, according to WWD, "newspapers and digital media companies like Vice and Buzzfeed have revealed layoffs totaling more than 2,000. In January alone, announced job cuts were already up 49.6 percent compared to the beginning of 2018, according to Challenger Gray."

We've already discussed media layoffs this year.

But we feel that with traditional retail and traditional and digital news outlets suffering, the economy could be in trouble.

By the way, another threat to news organizations and media is that the push in digital advertising is to focus on consumer targeting. Big brands continue to spend a lot of money to reach audiences -- but an increasing share of the money is going to providers of digital tools and data in a shift away from media companies. In other words, ad spends may not be decreasing but the amount being spent directly to media companies is decreasing. The media will have to figure out how to charge and be more effective in reaching and cultivating big brands' customers. If they don't, we will see ad dollars decrease even more.

If you have see some silver linings, let us know.