Did you video the presentation?
A friend had just finished telling me about the amazing presentation one of her company’s clients had given at a recent conference. He’d actually done a demo of her 4-person company’s product as part of his presentation.
Wow! Did she get a video of it?
No. She was working the booth as an exhibitor. Four people. Really limited resources.
And that’s the challenge, isn’t it. My friend had recommended the customer to speak at this conference. There was no predicting exactly what the customer would say when presenting, but given the topic, it seemed likely the startup was going to get some props.
What if they’d been able to video that presentation? They’ve got footage. With a little inexpensive editing software, maybe there’s a little YouTube video or a video testimonial for the startup’s website if the customer would agree. iPhone quality would be just fine for YouTube certainly and probably for a website video clip.
They’ve got a video file a temp could transcribe into a Word document relatively cheaply. Now they’ve got this transcript they could hand to a writer to create (with customer permission, of course) a case study, a blog post – maybe under the customer’s byline, a sales handout, website copy. Maybe there’s fodder for a pitch to a trade publication based on this case study. Maybe the client would agree to have his slide deck put on SlideShare. Another link to leverage. Maybe there are tidbits that could be pulled out for tips to post on the startup’s Facebook or Google+ page or to tweet to their online world. All of it benefits the customer as well who’s seen in all these new places looking just as smart as he is for using this tool to effectively manage his business. He’d be getting more return for his time doing the presentation in the first place.
And all of these opportunities for the initial price of finding somebody willing to sit in the front row, hold an iPhone for an hour and record a presentation.
It’s often only in hindsight that all these missed opportunities become glaringly obvious. Which is why you want at least a skeletal marketing plan that outlines how to maximize every opportunity that pops up to capture, create and use content. Consider it a template of how to wring every cent of value out of every tactic.
With hindsight, it’s easy to see the cost-effectiveness of buying a flip cam, begging a close personal friend (if no one else is available) with a really nice dinner to come to the session and paying for their registration fee just to capture that presentation. It’s a gamble: the startup team had no way of knowing the customer’s presentation would include a near-commercial for their product. But the odds were good they’d have some role and get some good content to use and reuse.
Does your plan include a template of how to maximize opportunities when they arise?
A student tried to stump me Tuesday during a conversation about positioning.
“For a kids’ energy drink, would you target the kids or the moms?”
Depends, I said. For instance, how old are the kids? There’s a bit of a difference between three-year-olds and thirteen-year-olds. Teenagers, he said. Then probably teenagers, I said.
“Interesting,” he said and went on to tell me about an article he just read talking about how much better an energy drink was doing since targeting moms. A more extensive discussion followed.
To the “interesting” comment, I very much wanted to respond: not really.
You target after segmenting and you segment based on knowledge. What do you know about the consumers? What do you know about the competition? Where’s the gap in the market that you can fill?
Every other decision is based upon that. Let’s say a beverage company discovered through its research that a good percentage of moms were concerned about the energy drinks their teenagers were drinking. They figure out a recipe that still gives the kick but is a lot healthier. Absolutely the target would be moms. The distribution channel would be grocery stores. Moms make almost all the grocery buying decisions. And yes, the teenagers would drink it. Because it’s free, in the refrigerator and tastes good.
That could be one scenario. But the point is you start with the research. You find the gap and you fill it. You don’t just pick a target market out of thin air.
It isn’t about what you think. You have to have reason to believe and the stronger that reason is the better. The closer you get to knowing what your target segment wants, the stronger your business opportunity is going to be.
As we learn more and understand more, we move away from what we think to having a reason to believing all the way to actually knowing. But absolutely certainty is an unachievable goal. What you’re trying to do is inform your intuition.
Choosing a target market isn’t answering a pop quiz. It’s an informed decision. Was yours?
Breaking News Service Essential Social Media Marketing Tool
Monday, April 15th was obviously a very sad day in the United States of America. What kind of cowardice it takes to plant explosives at a marathon is beyond my comprehension. The fact that things like this happen is beyond all degrees of sad. The fact marketers and brand managers have to anticipate something this horrible might happen and plan accordingly is appalling. But they do.
That was quickly obviously on Twitter this afternoon as the Twitterverse started piling on the scheduled posts used by nearly every brand as they contributed suddenly meaningless chatter to a conversation otherwise dedicated to following an unfolding tragedy. Social media managers on top of their games scrambled to cancel scheduled posts. They certainly got plenty of free advice to do exactly that as evidenced by this brief example from just after 1:30pm Pacific from a pile of Twitter posts.
There were also great examples of companies letting their human side clearly show and demonstrating their respect for the suffering flowing out of Boston. Seattle-based DRY Soda, for instance, posted the message below to the company Facebook page.
It would seem to simple, having a little empathy for people facing a horror. And if every single brand lived online, it would be. It’s much tougher for the small businesses who dedicate a slice of every day to posting content they hope will be valuable and another slide being sure they respond to those speaking directly to them online.
Unlike big brands with full time social media teams, these small business folk are just as likely to be in a sales meeting as on Twitter at any given minute in the business day. Their ability to respond quickly to essentially shut down their outbound social media marketing is limited. But when the nation is hurting from an attack, that doesn’t matter, a sentiment clearly expressed by JoelleTweeted below:
Equally important to small businesses using tools like Hootsuite (which I use) to stay on top of their social media platforms is a subscription service that will text them when news breaks. Having such a tool doesn’t necessarily mean a small business can instantly respond and pull down scheduled posts. But it drastically increases the chances you’ll still have scheduled tweets, Facebook posts and Pinterest shots trying to maintain happy brand promotion two hours after your online community first started reeling from shock. I have CNN’s iPad app on my Mini, but I’m not advocating for them particularly. Mashable published a great list of breaking news accounts on Twitter and if you do nothing else to know when big news is happening, follow one of them. Click on the following headline for Mashable’s 10 Must-Follow Breaking News Accounts on Twitter story.
How you make sure you’re aware of what’s going on in the world as part of your social media marketing program doesn’t matter. Just do it.
That’s the question an article in yesterday’s New York Times Business Day titled “Sponsoring Articles, Not Just Ads” seems to be asking yet not asking. So I’ll ask it: are they?
To me, that’s the core issue. And it’s a tricky question. We have a collision of circumstances happening. On the one hand we have the new thing everybody’s talking about — content marketing. It’s the way to build reputation, relationships with customers, providers and community members and, most importantly, provide value instead of pitching specials and discounts. On the other, media is in trouble and it seems ludicrous to begrudge publishers attempts to find new ways to bring in the revenue that allows their editorial staff to do real journalism work.
The real job of journalism is to serve people — readers, viewers, listeners — and in so doing perform the important watch dog function that earned the press the name Forth Estate, for keeping an eye on our governments. If people are being mislead, that’s clearly a disservice. But if not, and they value the information being shared with them, is it a disservice?
Personally, I’d prefer to see content a company paid to have in any media outlet clearly marked. And yet, I could very fairly be labeled a hypocrite for saying so. Why?
Way longer ago than I’d care to admit, I got to write entire sections for speciality consumer magazines on behalf of my clients when I was in Minneapolis. The magazines, called special interest publications or SIPs for short, produced and sold through newsstands by some of the biggest magazine publishing houses in America, then had what they called a “bulking section.” Positioned right in the middle of the magazine, this 16-page section was typically printed in black ink only on cheaper, bulkier stock and served to literally bulk up the SIPs. They often dealt with a single broad topic area — like outdoor living in a home improvement special interest magazine — and were an extra burden to the specialty publications’ sparse editorial teams.
I wrote several of those sections benefitting a bevy of clients whose businesses grouped into a category like that. If I recall correctly, the one I referenced above involved Toro outdoor lighting, Weyerhaeuser pressure-treated special lumber and DAP, a USG subsidiary that made outdoor wood stains. The articles were about how to design outdoor lighting for aesthetics and home security, making decks and gazebos cooler and more in keeping with a home’s architectural style and designing beautiful planting beds. My clients paid my firm for my time to write and my boss’s time to edit the articles, paid for illustrators to provide art and that was pretty much it. This was strictly the editorial side of the house. No ad purchase involved.
I’m quite sure my firm originally got the opportunity to create these sections because my boss was a former Better Homes & Gardens editor, so the SIP editors knew his work and trusted his journalistic ethics. He knew how to write for their audiences, had exceedingly high journalistic standards for all our work and was an absolutely brutal editor. I learned an enormous amount working for him. We got to keep doing it because our team developed a track record with a select group of SIP editors who knew we’d deliver the goods if we pitched an idea for a bulking section.
So were they a disservice to readers? As you might expect, I’d argue no. We worked hard to make them good sections, chock full of useful information, tips and ideas. They did mention the companies and they did tout product attributes. Why else would we do them? But that same product information was carried in myriad editor-written materials showing up in countless magazine and newspaper stories nationwide. Getting that done was our job.
Ultimately aren’t the readers already determining what’s valuable to them by what they choose to read and share? One article on Google Glass technology on Mashable was shared almost 2,000 times on social media. They probably shared it because they liked it. Maybe that’s the real criteria we should consider.
Volha was practically shaking, she was so excited to tell me about the undergraduate Capstone project she and her fellow UW chemical engineers had taken to the final round of the Environmental Innovation Challenge (EIC) at Seattle Center yesterday. When her team, PolyDrop, won the $10,000 grand prize I could recognize her voice among the happy screams from the back of the room.
PolyDrop manufactures additives that makes regular coatings like paint conductive, opening up, as the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship described when announcing the winners, “a world of opportunity for carbon fiber composites in transportation industries.” A funny thing happens on the way to using light-weight carbon fiber materials for cars and plane to reduce fuel consumption and decrease carbon dioxide emissions: those carbon fiber composites accumulate a static charge that will interfere with a vehicle’s sensitive electronics. PolyDrop can fix that.
I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting any members of the PolyDrop team before the EIC, but I knew nearly half of the second place team from last Fall’s Environmental Innovation Practicum, which I teach at UW. That team, Pure Blue Technologies, is developing a safer, smaller, more cost-effective water disinfection technology for treating the average of seven barrels of water that comes from extracting one barrel of oil. Called “produced water,” it has to be disinfected to meet EPA regulations, even if it is just going to be disposed. In the U.S. alone, we’re talking about 353 billion gallons of highly contaminated produced water.
I stopped to congratulate another team from this year’s class, Upcycled, developer of a handy little bio-briquette maker initially targeting markets in India, and one from last year, EcoMembrane, developing a better technology EcoMembrane is developing a new technology for preventing scaling and fouling of desalination and wastewater treatment membranes using ultrasound. Founder Jaffer Alali told me getting Pacific Northwesterners to grasp the need for desalination is a bit trickier than it was in Jordan where he was a teaching assistant recently. Yet desalination is news here in the U.S. too. We talked about San Diego’s recent announcement for a big plant. I was so proud of him and his tenacity in continuing to develop his technology and gain industry support for that work. Both these teams won $2,500 Honorable Mention prizes along with Sunscroll from Western Washington for its solar-charged LED light and USB charging station. You can read more about all of the teams at UW’s Foster Unplugged Blog: $22,500 Awarded to Environmental/Cleantech Innovators. Seattle’s KING5 TV also covered the competition on its Evening Magazine program, which is wonderful!
As I made a last round before heading home, I talked with another student from this Fall’s Practicum, a brilliant electrical engineering student who has come so very far, far since Dec. in identifying a real potential market and articulating a viable value proposition for that sector. After working so hard and pitching his heart out all afternoon, he struggled to contain his disappointment to be walking away without a prize. I resisted the enormous temptation to give him a consoling hug. But the team intends to keep developing their technology and are entering the UW Business Plan Competition, one with an even bigger purse than the EIC offers.
These are the faces of environmental innovation in this region — young, passionate, committed and (most importantly in my mind) hopeful. They see possibilities for making a difference all around them. What’s so cool to me is being able to see so many possibilities in them. I can’t wait to see where they take it from here!
One in four Americans with a 2-car garage can’t park their car in that garage.
The average American has $7,000 worth of unused stuff in their homes.
Wow! Those are some of the numbers Nick Huzar, CEO and Founder of OfferUp, shared with my Entrepreneurial Marketing undergrads at the University of Washington Tues. They set the stage to explain the big problem OfferUp is set to solve: how to make selling all that stuff we have and don’t need or want as easy as taking a smartphone picture.
Every quarter, I ask an entrepreneur to come to the first day of class and tell their story. For me, the purpose is three-fold: 1) entrepreneurship majors get a great opportunity to hear from and question somebody doing exactly what they want to do; 2) marketing majors get their brains in the “few resources” space of entrepreneurs really fast; and 3) it makes good use of a class day for which the students have done no reading or preparation!
Nick was a fantastic first day speaker. He couldn’t have done a better job of setting up the course material if he’d been working from a script instead of just sharing what he wanted to share with the packed classroom. For instance, on selecting the target market and having a single focus early on:
“I’m not the target market. I needed to stop developing for me and just shut up and listen to moms.” Why moms? They buy and sell a lot of stuff. Kids grow fast. They’re the highest adopters of smartphones. They weren’t at all happy with available options. They love OfferUp. Nick said half of his downloads are organic. Word of mouth at its finest.
“Don’t try to please everyone right away. That never works.”
And then there were the references to guerrilla techniques, like t-shirts. Pointing to the shirt he was wearing, with OfferUp’s logo and tagline, Nick said: “I wear t-shirts to every networking event I attend. I have one that says ‘Developers wanted’ in three languages. It helped me find one of the guys who’s helping build the company. They cost like $25.” You can’t beat that for cost-effective marketing.
Rich Tong and John Zagula of Ignition Partners offered that advice when they wrote The Marketing Playbook. I found myself channeling them the last couple weeks as I’ve been having a fabulous time mentoring Fledgings, companies participating in the current 10-week program at Fledge, an incubator for socially conscious companies (read TriplePundit’s article about the program).
There’s so much to scope out when you’re in the early stages of creating a company. One thing you can’t take your eye off is this: who will pay you? In business-to-business settings, the individual with purchasing authority may not be the individual who wants your product or service. The ramifications for your business plan, your sales plan, your communications plan and your messaging are enormous.
In class, I love to use Google as an example. Everybody knows how Google makes most of its money. And it doesn’t take long before the entire group understands that if huge numbers of people switched search engines, that Google’s advertising revenue will vaporize. Yet it’s tougher for them to look at a young website that intends to make money off advertising and realize advertisers aren’t the primary audience; that it’s all about eyeballs. The true target customer is the consumer who’ll use the site. Without them, there’s no one to whom to advertise and therefore no revenue.
It’s not only with the media model, where readers/viewers/listeners use the product for cheap or free and true revenue comes from ads, that it can get confusing. Selling into large companies or academic institutions can put a startup in the same position. When you talk to prospective users, make sure you understand their role in the purchasing decision, too. Don’t just get product feedback.
It’s fantastic that the people who need your product are saying they love it. Just make sure the people who’d pay for it will love it, too.
Deanna Leung Madden and Michele Mehl, of Seattle’s BuzzBuilders, came to talk to my students Tuesday about using PR in entrepreneurial marketing. Toward the end of their info-packed talk, they referenced the recent spat between Tesla CEO Elon Musk and the New York Times. I’ve already written two posts related to that, first were tips for managing product reviews followed by a post on why considering who your real customer is should determine who you want to review your product and how. I’m afraid I now have to use my favorite automotive brand as an example one more time. Technically, this is the 3rd and final post in this series.
I offer these tips for handling negative coverage.
Tip #1: Recognize the threat.
Except for a few rare occasions when you’d draw more attention the negative coverage than it would garner on its own, this is not a “let sleeping dogs lie” situation. Negative coverage, particularly from a large, well respected media outlet, can do an enormous amount of brand damage. You do have to take steps to quickly repair that damage. Speed matters. Channel your inner Spock. Shut off your emotions and truly analyze the piece:
- Note legitimate criticism. You’re going to have to own up to that to have any credibility. This is a particularly tough one, but failure to acknowledge faults only undermines your brand’s integrity with your community.
- Flag any factual inaccuracies. These are your genuine points of defense and you want to challenge them. Be wary of factual inaccuracies that readers might consider nits. They won’t build your case and instead will make you look like a whiner.
- Check next for perspectives that disagree with other “parallel” writers on the same subject. By parallel I mean another media outlet in or at least near the same level of influence. These can become reference links that help readers recognize points that may be opinion or tied to a specific experience rather than a hard, cold fact.
Use this analysis to quickly craft your response points.
Tip #2: Muzzle the attack dog.
We expect every CEO to aggressively defend his or her company. But that ancient “count to 10″ piece of advice your mom may have given you, is a good one to follow here. Even if experience has taught you not to naturally trust the journalist in doing their best to be unbiased and fair in their reporting, do not attack them personally. Do not attack the integrity of the media outlet.
Yep, this could do a lot of damage and you need to response fast. Yep, you’re pissed. Yep, you’ve been burned before. But it’s a fine line between being seen as responsibly defending your product and brand and being an attack dog. What if, instead of the tweets captured to the right, Elon Musk has sent out these:
Just read article @jbrodernyt. So not the experience we wanted for you. Checking vehicle logs to see what happened. Call you ASAP.
He could have sent that while the logs were being checked. It’s an immediate response. Broder knows he’s going to be challenged (this, unfortunately, would’ve been the first time he knew Tesla could see the logs, but I made that point in an earlier post). Followers know there’s more coming and they might read the review with a more questioning mind. What’s NOT happening is that Musk isn’t questioning Broder’s integrity. He’s expressing a little sympathy. After all, partly self-inflicted or not, Broder did have a pretty rotten experience.
Crisis communications 101 tells you to always express sympathy for those affected. Despite having soaring blood pressure, as I’m betting he did, Musk could have done that here.
Tip #3: Engage the journalist directly.
I’m sure Tesla would prefer to never let this particular journalist touch one of its cars ever again, but the fact is, it needs the New York Times. It’s not smart to alienate one of America’s most elite newspapers. The business is called public relations for a reason: it’s about relationships. Take 10 minutes to prep. Have the data in front of you. Know how you’re going to approach the subject. Get emotions under control. And dial the phone. If you don’t immediately back the journalist again a wall, you might find they’re willing to work with you to soften the blow. Handed the vehicle logs, perhaps Broder would’ve written a follow up piece acknowledging that he didn’t quite manage this test smartly and that his quickly jotted notes while driving were a bit off. Maybe he’d agree to give it a second drive and write another piece. You never know until you actually talk to the writer.
Tip #4: Escalate intelligently.
Tesla needed to publish the vehicle logs. They were the factual inaccuracies that kept a debate going about the Model S’s performance. But the blog post, following the advice above, could have taken a considered tone versus a vindictive one. It could’ve noted that taking really accurate notes while driving is a bit dangerous, so minor errors are understandable. Tesla could’ve taken responsibility for not working more closely with the writer to ensure he knew what an owner would know about getting a full charge.
The tweet directing readers to the blog could have said: Tesla S logs don’t quite line up with @NYTimes review. See for yourself. Logs posted on blog.
Some of the same drama would have had to play out because Tesla couldn’t afford to have the review stand as the final word. But the tone of whole thing could have been dramatically different. The resulting interview Musk had to give to Bloomberg TV might have gone a bit differently as well.
Tip #5: Don’t get caught flat-footed again.
If you take nothing away from this point but this one, you’ll be OK. Create a crisis communications plan! Then you’ll be ready to deal quickly with bad press or any other situation that could damage your brand and impact sales. But better by far, the mere act of creating a plan trains the entire team to spot risky situations before hand so you can often avoid ones that have the potential to go badly — assuming they’re in your control.
How to approach crisis communications planning will have to wait for another day.
The extensive debate around The New York Times’ Feb. 10 review of the Tesla Model S sedan and its ability to make a run from D.C. to Boston using Tesla’s new supercharger network along I-95 has practically been blood sport and, consequently, has had a decent audience throughout. The Editorial Director of the Harvard Business Review weighed in Feb. 15th making the point that innovators often forget normal people are going to have to use their products, not the geeky innovative types they themselves are likely to be. Here’s an excerpt from Tim Sullivan’s post:
Perhaps this is the root of the problem. The Tesla team have (sic) built a car to satisfy themselves, which means that they’ve focused on the customer as driver not on the customer as a whole individual. That’s the tension I see in the original Broder review: great driving, bad transportation. Tesla’s goal is to sell 20,000 units of the Model S and they are promoting it as a “normal-use” car. Will anyone put up with the hassle? Was this normal use part of their early goal or did they just geek out on an awesome car?
In my Feb. 18th post on managing product reviews, I disagreed with part of that article, which is not to say at all that I disagree entirely. Not at all.
Tesla is trying to position the S as a regular car alternative and I would argue it’s not. Not yet. I say that as the owner of an electric car. I drive – and love – a Nissan Leaf. But it’s a commuter car and a commuter car only. While Jim Billmaier, author of Jolt! The Impending Dominance of the Electric Car and Why America Must Take Charge, did indeed take his on road trips to bravely challenge the range limits, I’m not going to do that. Granted, the Tesla S has a longer range than my Leaf, but still. There are a lot of gas stations along every highway in this country. Still, most people don’t wait until the tank’s nearing empty before they hit truck stop. The charging stations along I-95 are about 200 miles apart and even supercharging requires taking a bit more than a bathroom break.
Buying an EV does indeed require the driver to change his or her behavior and as all of us who try to influence consumer behavior know well, that’s a tough assignment. Tesla is a public company trying to hit numbers. That leads to forecast’s like Seeking Alpha’s 8/31/11 post trying to predict the company’s market share. I believe Tesla’s a little behind on Model S deliveries, so that would impact their ability to meet this forecast. Regardless, Tesla needs rapid adoption to hit their numbers. But technology adoption is a predictable curve passing from one group of adopters to another in a fairly well known progression. Let’s take a quick look at the first three groups.
Quoting directly from Geoffrey A. Moore in Crossing the Chasm, Innovators pursue new technology products aggressively. They often make a technology purchase simply for the pleasure of exploring the device’s properties.
Early adopters buy into new products concepts very early in their life cycle, but unlike innovators, they are not technologists. Rather they are people who find it easy to imagine, understand and appreciate the benefits of a new technology, and to relate these potential benefits to their other concerns (my italics because I believe that matters a great deal when we’re talking about EVs).
On the other hand, members of the early majority ultimately are driven by a strong sense of practicality. They’re content to wait and see how other people are making out before the buy in themselves. This is a decent sized segment of the market, so of course Tesla wants to reach it as quickly as possible. But – Tesla’s positioning aside – EVs are still in the early stages of technology adoption. That’s the point I felt Sullivan missed or skipped in his HBR piece. He’s right that EVs have a long way to go to reach the masses. That’s how technology adoption works.
It all makes me wonder if it was wise at this stage for Tesla to encourage any journalist to take the charging stations for a “test drive.” And that brings me back to John M. Broder’s experience.
My view could be skewed by the fact I’m in those early groups for consumer adoption, but as an EV owner I personally would have acted very differently than Broder. I’m not a patient person (fine, far, far from it!) but I would have forced myself to wait 11 more minutes to reach full charge at the second stop because, as an EV driver, I know how much more range I can get out of just 11 minutes of charging.
But here’s the biggie: Groton, Conn. Broder said the car gave him a range of 90 miles when he parked for the night, more than enough to make it back to Milford, 46 miles away. But temperatures that night dipped to 10 degrees and in the morning he had a 25-mile range.
Maybe it’s because I lived in Minnesota for 12 years, land of parking garage outlets installed not for EVs but for block heaters, but there’s no way I would not have plugged in my car with such low temperatures predicted for overnight. Broder wanted to emulate a typical driver’s experience, which is appropriate and understandable. I don’t think he’s giving typical drivers enough credit for survival instincts.
This reminded me a college Spring break trip. Four of us drove one of my best friend’s absolute beater of a car from Iowa to Florida. The gas gauge wasn’t trustworthy, so the rule was simple: No matter who was driving, as soon as the gauge hit one-quarter tank, you pulled into the first available gas station. With half of us asleep in the middle of the night, the driver (not me, not the owner) didn’t do that. When my friend woke up and discovered we’d driven past the absolute stop rule, she made the driver pull into a closed truck stop where we sat for nearly two hours until they opened so we could fill up. (Yes, I know I’m dating myself. All truck stops didn’t used be open 24/7.)
To me, Broder’s decision to not charge that night was the same as our mutual friend’s decision to ignore the one-quarter tank stop rule. Yes, one of four did made that decision. But it was still a dumb decision.
So there’s some culpability to justifiably spread around. Should Tesla have proposed this test when its charging stations were still this far apart? Should they be positioning the S as a substitue for any other luxury sedan? Should the NYT have considered who the real market for EVs are and taken that into account in making the assignment? All questions I believe deserve a little debate.
Love to hear what others think about them.
There’s been a lot of finger pointing and soul searching in all the back and forth between Tesla, The New York Times, writers, pundits, marketers and analysts since John M. Broder published his Feb. 10th story on taking the Model S sedan up Interstate 95 in frigid temperatures. Broder had a far less than enjoyable experience, including some woes I’d argue (and will in a subsequent post) were stupidly self inflected. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, understanding the serious potential for lasting brand damage here, quickly and aggressively (a bit too aggressively, in my opinion) jumped into the fray. Today, Margaret Sullivan, the Times editor who’s been investing the conflict attempts to close the chapter in her blog post today.
What there hasn’t been – at least that I’ve found, and I’ve been looking – is a recap of what lessons those responsible for managing product reviews for any brand can learn from this experience.
But first, full disclosure: I’m an enthusiastic supporter of electric vehicles (EVs) and frankly anything that gets the world weaned from fossil fuels just as fast as possible. I drive a Nissan Leaf, which we got after sadly realizing the Tesla S we had reserved wasn’t going to fit in our World War II era garage without giving me heart palpitations every time I tried to park it. I love our Leaf. It’s fun to drive and I love just plugging my car in when I get home instead of filling up at a station. I still want a Tesla. Really badly, I might add. I’m also a long-time subscriber to and advocate of The New York Times and sincerely believe that the paper is one of the few remaining bastions of trustworthy journalism in this country. In other words, I’d happily go the mat for both of these brands.
Now that we’re clear on that, here’s my point: Tesla mismanaged this review. And here’s why.
I learned the art of managing product reviews at the hands of the masters – Microsoft. I’d managed reviews before I started representing them in late 1996, but I’d quickly learn that the company had the review process down to a science and knew how to do all it could to get at least a fair if not favorable review of its products. It’s been a good number of years since I last managed one of these myself, but here’s a quick overview of a smart process.
#1 Know your product’s weaknesses even better than its strengths.
I was unfortunately reminded of this in 2007 when I didn’t dig deeper than my client had into its product and was blind-sided by an awful cnet review I wish I could forget. Tesla knows well by now how its S sedan performs. It knows under what circumstances drivers can and can’t achieve the promised battery range. They knew perfectly well that the charging stations were spaced toward the end of that range for normal driving conditions. Bad luck for them, East Coast temperatures plummeted during the review. I can testify personally that my Leaf had a much shorter range when we ran through a week of 20-degree days in Seattle in Jan. But unlike John Broder, I adjusted my driving that week because I didn’t want to get stranded on I-5; but more on that in another post as I digress. Tesla should’ve been watching that forecast and talking to Broder about the unusual circumstances he might have been facing on his test drive. This is even truer since the whole review was Tesla’s idea, not Broder’s. Did no one do a risk analysis of reviewing the charging corridor when the stations were spaced at nearly maximum range? I can’t believe they didn’t, so they should’ve anticipated their risks.
#2 Thoroughly prepare to be reviewed.
There’s a great deal of work summarized here. The job of the team managing a product review is to 1) find all the things that could go wrong during the review process, 2) anticipate questions a reviewer might have and problems they might encounter, 3) develop a reviewer’s guide to help a reviewer efficiently test the product and – here’s the key bit – acknowledge issues you know about and are working on, 4) prepare the product spokesperson to handle the easy questions and, more importantly, the questions the whole team is praying won’t come up. There are always some. The task is to be ready.
#3 Be clear about what you want reviewed – and by whom.
There are two problems here for Tesla. First, Tesla proposed a review of its new charging network. That’s not actually possible. The review really had to be about the car’s ability to use only that charging network to travel up the East Coast.
Second, this reviewer wrote that he wanted to The Harvard Business Review carried a post by Editorial Director Tim Sullivan that said the real problem here is that Tesla designed a car for people like them, not normal people. Sullivan writes: “But consumers rarely want to change their behaviors to adopt your cool tech. They want you to identify and solve their problem, cheaply and efficiently.” With all due respect (and I mean that very sincerely), I disagree. It’s not that Sullivan is wrong. He’s just in the wrong part of the adoption curve. With EVs, we’re very much still dealing with the Innovators and maybe early edge of Early Adopters. This would appear to be something NYT’s Broder also missed. I firmly believe any consumer at the front edge of the adoption curve would’ve taken this drive differently. I can guarantee I’d have plugged in my S overnight when it was only 10 degrees outside no matter what the car told me I had left for range. It’s 10 degrees! Plug in the bloody car.
#4 Work closely with the reviewer in advance.
Step one of this is to know your reviewer. In Musk’s blog post, he questions Broder’s intentions, accusing him of approaching the review with an anti-EV bias. The time to figure out a reviewer may be disinclined to like your product is BEFORE you agree to the review, not after.
A Tesla owner who wrote to Sullivan at the Times suggested Broder could’ve avoided all this problems if he’d just taken an hour to read the owners’ manual. A reader commented that would never have happened and that’s correct. Hell, I’ve never read my owners’ manual and probably won’t until something goes wrong. But any decent reviewer will sit down with a company representative and at least talk things through if not let you flip through the reviewer’s guide with them. This is when you talk about the nuances of charging and extenuating circumstances, like a weather forecast with overnight lows 20 or 30 degrees below average.
It sounds like Broder didn’t know Tesla would be keeping a detailed digital log of his entire journey. He should have. Disclosing that would be good for the ongoing relationship with the journalist and publication. And you never know, he may have phrased some of his sentences a little differently, had he known his own notes taken while driving (!) couldn’t compete with the car’s logs.
#5 Provide the reviewer with insider access.
This one may not apply here as the product being reviewed is already out in public, which often is not the case with product reviews. But it would’ve been so very smart for Tesla to do a briefing with everyone staffing the drivers’ line during the period of the review so they knew a NYT writer was test the I-95 corridor charging stations under frigid conditions. All hands needed to be on deck, and even more important, in synch.
Tesla had a lot at stake. Nature wasn’t helping them. They needed to up their game and didn’t. And that’s too bad. More later on this whole adoption curve thing and my thoughts on Elon Musk’s response to the Times. Meanwhile, love to hear what you think about all this.
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