PR: The Entrepreneur’s Secret Weapon

Summer School on The Clarity Blog: 14th Class

I believe it was Jay Conrad Levinson of Guerrilla Marketing fame who referred to PR as a secret weapon and, having spent decades working for PR firms, I naturally loved the reference.

Public relations is one of the most effective and most cost-effective tactics available to entrepreneurs promoting their businesses. It’s also got to be the most misunderstood.

Just a few weeks ago, British Entrepreneur Adam Pollard, co-owner of The Willoughby Book Club, wrote a terrific little piece for The Guardian’s small business network offering Top tips: how startups can harness the power of PR. Aside from thinking PR is part of advertising (marketing is the umbrella, Adam, not advertising), Pollard clearly understanding what PR has done for his business and can do for others. It’s quite a decent little primer.

The practice of PR has been changing rapidly with technology. In May, Startup Nation posted this tips piece by Melanie Rembrandt in May Small Business Public Relations Tips to Boost Sales Now, in which her top tip (which, I admit, would certainly not have been my #1) is to post a search engine optimized press release — something that was all over the PR, SEO and marketing news a week or so ago as Google issued new webmaster guidelines and stated that keyword-rich anchor text links within articles or press releases should be nofollows, just as they are in advertising. I saw dozens of posts asking if Google just killed press releases. This July 30 post by Barry Schwartz, Search Engine Land‘s news editor, helps explain what’s going on.

The mechanics of doing PR have changed dramatically as have the methods for integrating public relations activities and results with other marketing and brand management tactics, but the objective of PR hasn’t changed. PR is what people are talking about when they refer to “earned media.” The key lies in gaining an implied third-party endorsement because someone decided to write about you, talk about you, invite you to speak some place, give you an award or ask for your opinion — on the record. The objective of your PR program is incredibly simple:

Get other, credible people talking about you because you’ve earned their attention.


  • Learn how to tell a good story.  PR firms used to largely populated by former journalists. Why? Because a huge part of a PR person’s job was dealing with media and knowing how journalists work, what makes a good story and how to write it well were critical job requirements. While being able to write a great tweet might now be equally important, the ability to know what makes a good story and how to be a good source are still top of the heap in getting traditional journalists, bloggers, conference planners and the world on social media to notice you and take you seriously.
  • Polish your expertise to expert status. Presumably, you know something about your business and your industry and are keeping up on what’s happening. What often separates everybody in your industry from those getting the most exposure is often the ability to provide a unique or at least interesting perspective and — don’t underestimate this — the ability to offer up a pithy soundbite.
  • Be credible. Honesty and integrity, always commodities too rare and precious, play a bit part in earning your right to be covered, quoted, consulted, friended, retweeted, invited and awarded.
  • Be genuinely remarkable. If you want the top journalists and top bloggers writing about you, the top social media folks in your industry pointing to you and the top conference planners asking you to speak, try being genuinely remarkable. Design fantastic products, offer amazing customer service, create a brand personality people can’t ignore. That’s really earning the attention.

These things are unlikely to change no matter where technology and integration take us. Beyond that, where is PR headed? PR Veteran Sally Falko wrote just today on Social Media Today wrote about the evolution of PR over the past 100 years and what’s next. Her advice is this:

… the one avenue that PR folk should be mastering is paid media. It’s a far cry from the old advertising model of banner ads or advertorial.  Pay attention to social advertising, promoted stories and recommended content. There are many opportunities for smart PR pros to syndicate their owned and earned content to new audiences, blogs and media sites.

Now THAT’S a Life Cycle Analysis: Climate Friendly Cars

Climate Central yesterday released a report, called A Roadmap to Climate-Friendly Cars,  looking at total carbon emissions for different types of cars that included not only the fuel “burned” but also the emissions generated to create the batteries used in hybrid and electric cars. THAT’s what a life cycle analysis is supposed to do. The point is to understand any product’s total impact from cradle — including extracting raw materials used to make the product — to grave when that product is discarded. If it can be recycled, then the analysis is cradle-to-cradle. You don’t just look at one piece of the puzzle but the whole puzzle. Life cycle analyses expose “green washing.” Any company seeking to promote its products as any shade of green would be wise to invest in a true analysis to protect its reputation from being exposed later as green washing or trying to hide the nastier components of its product creation, production and disposal.

Anyone who reads this blog knows I drive a Nissan Leaf. I’ve used Tesla as an in-class exercise at UW. I use a cartoon of an electric car plugged into an outlet connected to a belching coal plant as an example of how FUD — fear, uncertainty and doubt — come in to play for both innovators and guarders of the status quo. So I’m particularly tuned into this particular study.

The gist of it is that your “greenest” car options depends entirely upon what’s generating your electricity.  If your electricity comes from coal-fired utilities, then the nicest thing you can do for the environment is buy a gasoline car with terrific gas mileage. If your power comes from hydro or nuclear, all electric is the way to go. Lots of communities have mixed sources of electricity and many of those would be “greenest” to drive hybrids. Climate Central Electric Car Comparison

How long you’re going to drive that car also matters, because the emissions generated during battery production get amortized (my explanation, not that theirs) over a longer period of time. If the car goes 100,000 rather than 50,000 miles, a whole lot more states would be better off with all electric vehicles. Climate Central created a nifty little interactive map to showing the difference. Check it out.

It goes without staying, but I’ll say it anyway: the whole country would be dark or light green on this map if we stopped using coal. And wouldn’t that be a great idea.

Putting Research To Work

Summer School on the ClarityBlog: 4th Class

Geez these posts are long!

Last class, we talked about how to get smart about your prospective customers and competitors when you’re resource constrained. Now let’s talk about what to do with all that newfound knowledge!


“In the final analysis, research makes possible the calculated part of calculated risk-taking.” – Rethinking Marketing

When you’re doing your research, you’re assembling pieces to a puzzle you can’t hope to fully complete but which you can complete enough to be able to recognize the picture. And what you’ve learned about your potential customers, how and where they buy, your competitors and industry influencers all comes in handy in so many ways. It will enable you to assess your ability to compete in your chosen sector reasonably well, to map the competition according to how your targeted customers evaluate their options and make their purchase decisions, and to make some critical decisions about initial pricing and distribution without relying solely on your gut!

We’re going to talk about segmenting and targeting on Thursday and positioning next Tuesday, both of which flow from the analyses I just mentioned. Meanwhile, before the holiday break, I believe I promised to talk about the idea of creating characterizations, or that amalgam Tong and Zagula referred to in The Marketing Playbook.

In Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey A. Moore describes characterizations as “isolating a few high-quality images … to be archetypes of a broader and more complex reality.” He recommends working only with memorable images and reminds his readers we’re talking about characterizing a prototype customer, NOT the target market. The target market is a group and hopefully a sizeable one willing and able to make the purchase.

Every quarter, I recruit two local entrepreneurships to work with teams of my students who function as consultants and develop marketing plans against an assignment outline for that company. One of the young companies, which worked with my class this past quarter knew walking in the door that their target customers were in a recognized segment called LOHAS, named for their “lifestyles of health and sustainability.” I wouldn’t let the students use this as a citation but you look them up on Wikipedia.

There’s a good deal of data available on LOHAS consumers, which allowed the motivated student teams to focus their primary research on their project company’s specific offering. Some went to local farmers’ markets to interview shoppers. Some went to Whole Foods and our regional co-op PCC Natural Markets. They posted Facebook surveys. And through all that the teams collectively put some real meat on the bones of the local LOHAS consumers of interest to this particular company. The characterization might look like this:

Katie, a mid-30s homeowner in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood who lives with her boyfriend and earns about $70,000 a year in the tech industry, believes she casts her most powerful vote when she shops. Katie has an herb garden and grows a few vegetables in her yard, including some luscious tomatoes. She shops at the Wallingford Famers’ Market every weekend and otherwise buys her groceries at the PCC in the neighboring Fremont neighborhood. She buys local and organic. She would stop to consider the implications of her purchase if forced to choose between an organic apple imported from Chili or a non-organic apple from Washington. She’s confident every piece plastic in her kitchen is BPA-free. She goes out of her way to shop at neighborhood stores, turning to web purchasing only when she can’t find what she needs. She brings her own lunches to work. They look and smell great. She can ride the Metro bus to work and has a Zipcar account for trips outside the city. She spends her weekends hiking the nearby mountains, kayaking on Lake Union and cycling the Burke Gilman Trail. She loves the outdoor summer ZooTunes concert series at Woodland Park Zoo.

Target segments are a mass. It’s tough to consider how that mass might respond to a particular message or react to a complex partnership, for instance. It’s much easier to be able to ask yourself, as an entrepreneur, “What would Katie think of this?”

And that’s exactly the purpose of characterizations. A characterization takes an anonymous blob and turns it in to a person to whom a founding team can relate. For years, I worked with a media training team who’d advise spokespeople to get from the abstract to the concrete just as fast as they could when answering questions and telling stories. The same goes here. A targeted segment is a whole lot less abstract than the universe of potential customers. But that segment is massively abstract when compared to a single, representative characterized customer. You can get to know Katie. And just like you get to know real flesh-and-blood people over time, you have to get to know your characterized customer better over time as you learn more from real customers. The learning never stops.

“Keep in mind that customers are complicated and having needs that continually change. … Further, markets are complex, competitors are unpredictable, economic conditions fluctuate, and new (often disruptive) technologies keep emerging.” – Rethinking Marketing

Keep learning.

FUD Take 2

Recently read a Guardian environmental blog story on a new movie with a fantastically catching title: Greedy Lying Bastards: U.S. Filmmaker Attacks Oil Industry. Who could pass up reading that? Certainly not I.

The story is about an upcoming documentary film from American Craig Rosebraugh that “highlights the ‘influence, deceit and corruption’ of fossil fuel industry.” YouTube clips preview some of the interviews the film will contain. Smart previewing.

What a perfect excuse for a follow up to my Jan. 14th post on FUD!

You remember FUD — fear, uncertainty and doubt. It’s a natural reaction to the new, the unknown, the untried, the different. We may not like the status quo, but we know it. “The devil you know …” attitude. It’s one of the hurdles blocking the way to change of any kind.

Anyone marketing innovative ideas battles FUD. Sometimes, marketers that benefit from the status quo intentionally leverage that. Most of the time, those marketers are just trying to protect market share. In this case, the battle is more fundamental. If a majority of developed nations’ citizens agreed burning fossil fuels is a primary cause of global warming and that we have to act now to mitigate the resulting climate change — and actually did act right now — then the mega companies that make up the fossil fuel industry would soon be penning their own epitaphs instead of writing annual reports touting their stunning profits.

They’re fighting for survival. Surviving often requires fitting dirty. That’s exactly what the fossil fuel industry is doing. And they’ve got an enormous war chest to finance the battle.  They’re even taking the fight into the U.S. public school system. Check out this New Scientist story, US Education Advocates Tackle Climate Change Skeptics, to get the dirt.

Why, then, is it surprising that they’re spending a fortune creating FUD around global warming? It’s a very effective strategy.

If you’re a clean tech entrepreneur, a politician, a philanthropist or an environmental activist, the problem is a tough one: how do you battle an unscrupulous street fighter?

It takes commitment, tenacity and unfortunately time. It’s the same scenario we saw play out with Big Tobacco. It took decades just to get warning labels on cigarette packages. A lot of bad things happened to individuals during those decades. This time the extinction of myriad species and the livability of the planet may be at stake. We don’t have decades to defeat these war lords.

You expected me to tell you how to do this, didn’t you? I wish I knew with certainty. We’re all a bunch of little, semi-organized Davids fighting a team of Goliaths. There are so many battle fronts. I’m beginning to come around to the view of Gernot Wagner, author of “But Will the Planet Notice?” He essentially argues that our most effective battle plan may be to get market dynamics involved. We need to put a price on greenhouse gases. If we could do that would it no longer matter if people “believed” in climate change or global warming? Could we get the behavior change we need without having to change attitudes?

What do you think?


What To Do About Global Weirding?

My mother-in-law phoned Tuesday. It was sunny and headed for about 60 degrees in Iowa. “It’s really weird. But I like it!”

Thursday’s Environmental blog from The Guardian opened with this paragraph:

2012 has begun where 2011 left off with weird weather in Europe and the Americas, Arctic ice at almost its lowest extent ever recorded in midwinter, disastrous droughts and searing heat in Africa and Latin America, and one of the world’s biggest insurance companies warning that climate change will increase damages.

Friday’s New York Times featured photos of Jan. ’11’s snow-covered Central Park and this month’s grassy green lawn. And then there’s the 18 feet of snow in Alaska. There’s a reason some call global warming “global weirding.” Who knows what we’re in for?

Last quarter at the University of Washington, I taught the Environmental Innovation Practicum for the first time. A series of fantastic speakers came in to talk to the class including Michael Potts, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI); David Allen, executive VP of McKinstry; and James Billmaier, author of “JOLT!: The Impending Dominance Of The Electric Car And Why America Must Take Charge” (a terrific book! I highly recommend it).

We used “Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era,” a brand new book from RMI Co-founder, Chairman and Chief scientist Amory Lovins, as our course text. It was a little tricky since it was only available in ebook format when we started the quarter. Format aside (it wasn’t the most elegant electronic rendering), I like it a lot.

Continuing my quest to educate me on climate change and global warming, I also read “Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth” by journalist Mark Hertsgaard and “But Will the Planet Notice?” By Gernot Wagner, an environmental economist for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Yes, it was all enough to make my head spin. But the different approaches to the problem we’re facing were also simultaneously eye-opening, depressing and inspiring.

Hertsgaard exposes the reality that global warming is arriving about 100 years sooner than published predictions. He calls his young daughter’s generation “Generation Hot” because they’ll be the ones who really get to deal with the aftermath of our current lifestyles, particularly if we, as a global community, continue to do nothing to mitigate the problem. Hertsgaard argues we have to get off the stick on mitigation (reducing emissions) but we also have to get quickly on board with adaptation (dealing with the inevitable sea level rises and regional climate changes), because even if we suddenly did all the right things today (as if that’s possible!), there’s already too much CO2 in the atmosphere to manage an about-face. We have to adapt to changes we can’t avoid.

Hertsgaard also taught me the difference between global warming and climate change, which I’d used interchangeably, like everyone else. Global warming, he writes, is the man-made rise in temperatures caused by excessive amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate change refers to the effects these higher temperatures have on the earth’s natural systems and the impacts that can result.  So global warming is what we’ve done to the atmosphere. Climate change is what global warming is doing and will do to the earth.

Wagner’s book takes a different tact. He states that personal actions – while noble and cumulative if we all do them – are individually irrelevant to the global climate. The planet won’t notice. He believes only smarter economics will be able to mitigate climate change. He expresses hope because, he writes, smarter economics saved us before – from acid rain. “The solution is clear,” he states, “put the right incentives in place.” He advocates cap-and-trade as a market. He writes:

As much as this issue has been politicized, this is not about right versus left, Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus conservationists, or markets versus the environment. This is about liberating markets and consequently turning each and every one of us into a force for good; it’s about making sure that increasing GDP, gross domestic product, does not decrease collective well-being.

It’s about taking personal responsibility for costs we now socialize and impose in society and the planet as a whole. Our choices are already being influenced by forces much larger than ourselves. They always have been and will be. The question is whether the nudge we submit to is guiding us where we want to go, preserving life and the rotation of the planet as we know it.

“Reinventing Fire” is another animal all together, which is why I chose it for class. While Lovins acknowledges the hurdles to reinventing how we power everything from buildings to buses and power plants to planes, “Reinventing Fire” is about hope, about using what’s already available and working, and about how businesses can make a lot of money in a clean fuel world. That’s not an argument you often hear for ditching fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, I saw countless stories and blog posts about the challenges of getting people to accept, care about and act on global warming.  I get the frustration – and the confusion.

In marketing, we talk about “FUD” – fear, uncertainty and doubt. It’s called the FUD factor. You can read quite a bit about it on Wikipedia, if you’re interested. Sometimes marketers battle it; sometimes marketers create it on purpose. Proponents for change, including both environmental groups and advocates for new technologies like electric vehicles, wind and solar power, smart grid, composites and myriad other exciting new developments, not only battle the complexities of talking about some of these innovations and issues, but FUD marketing budgets of entrenched industries whose very survival rests with a global majority making no changes in how they do anything.

I’ve been toying with a number of posts on this, so expect you’ll see me write more about it later. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about your experiences with FUD and the environment!

Life Cycle Analysis and Green Business Development

Melissa Winters from the EPA came to UW Tuesday to talk to my Environmental Innovation Practicum class about Life Cycle Assessment, also known as Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). She talked about an assessment Proctor and Gamble did its Tide brand in which they discovered the greatest environmental impact happened when the product was used in the home. Hot water washing. So they reformulated Tide to create a cold water only detergent.

Melissa also mentioned an ebook analysis I’ve written about before. I’d discovered the analysis through Conservation Magazine, a favorite of mine, but it originated in a New York Times op-ed piece written by the folks who did the analysis, Daniel Goleman and Gregory Norris, both well known names and leaders in LCA work. Norris founded the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, which is a tremendous resource (check out this LCA on algae biodiesel as an example).

When I wrote about the e-reader analysis in July, I noted that you needed to read 40-50 books a year to make an e-reader the better choice over paper books, based on the report in Conservation Magazine. Melissa commented that if we took greenhouse gas emissions into account, it was actually 100 books. If we looked at human impact, it was somewhere in between those two numbers. My iPad is a lot more than an e-reader to me, but I still glanced at it guiltily.

Since Melissa works with the building industry, the whole conversation reminded me of a TEDTalk I really enjoyed a while back, so I want hunting. It’s Catherine Mohr on building green and I think it’s great! It playfully but powerfully demonstrates that obvious answers for what’s the “greenest” choice is often very wrong. Or as she puts it: “Sometimes the things you least expect … have a bigger impact than any of those things you’re trying to optimize.”

The next morning, I spotted a story from on how the Cascadia Green Building Council had commissioned an LCA study on the “Environmental Impacts of Wastewater Treatment Strategies” and had just released the report. It’s a good read for anyone connected to the building industry or anyone who just wants to get a handle on what a life cycle analysis can uncover.

From a marketing perspective, a life cycle analysis does two things: 1) it’s an insurance policy that you know the up and downsides of your product before a competitor figures them out and uses the latter against you, and 2) assuming you do well in the analysis, it’s a grabbag of positive messages you can take to the market. From a business plan perspective, it’s an insurance policy to demonstrate you know the risk associated with your business and a grabbag of positive messages to take to investors, employees and business partners.

The trick for cleantech and other green entrepreneurs is the cost. Conducting LCA is pricey. For startups, a true LCA may be out of reach. But you can still do a significant amount of digging for data, look for comparables in your industry or adjacent ones, and make informed decisions. You can get a primer on life cycle assessment on the EPA’s website and well as a list of resources to serve as a starting point for research life cycle assessment on any product or service category.

Get as smart as you can about the potential environmental impact of your products or services. It’s smart business.

What Will It Take to “Green” Our Built Environment?

David Allen, executive vice president of Seattle-based McKinstry, knows a thing or two about a subject covered in Tuesday’s New York Times: the enormous potential for turning old buildings “green.” The potential isn’t just in energy and resource savings, but profit. McKinstry is a substantial second-generation business. The company helps building owners save a great deal of money while providing comfortable spaces for occupants by improving building systems efficiency. Sometimes it’s about running the building with smarter systems. Sometimes it’s about doing old-fashioned stuff like weather-proofing and upgrading heating and cooling systems. Sometimes it’s about adding renewable energy sources like solar. Most often, it’s a combination of many things.

Because of McKinstry’s prominence in this emerging industry, David was asked by the Rocky Mountain Institute, “an independent, entrepreneurial, nonprofit think-and-do tank,” to review the chapter of its soon-to-be-released book Reinventing Fire on “Buildings: Design for Better Living.” David will be speaking on that very subject to UW’s Environmental Innovation Practicum class and its Environmental Innovation Speaker Series at UW on Nov. 1st. I asked him to tell me a bit about the problem and the opportunity.

Q. What are the biggest hurdles to making our built environment dramatically more energy and resource efficient?

David: “The next iteration of environmental and energy efficiencies in buildings will require a new way of thinking in many regards.  Our country’s entire procurement system for designing, building and operating buildings is extremely silo’d and outdated.  To gain efficiencies and performance based outcomes, the entire design/construct industry must move away from the fragmented system we are all used to where one industry conceptualizes (real estate), hands it off to another industry that designs (architecture and engineering), who hands it off to another industry who builds (contractors) then turns the project over to another industry to operate it (facility management).  There is no guarantee of system-wide integration that will ensure a sustainable result.

Another aspect of hurdles involves policies, regulation and incentives driven by our government.  In the future these policies must work better towards guaranteed performance outcomes, thus sustainability.

Finally, behavior must be addressed.  You can design the most potentially sustainable building; you can build it with the best resource conservation methods; but its sustainability will only be driven by how its operated — and that will require major changes in occupant and operator behavior.”

Q. Besides initial costs, what are the most common objections McKinstry hears on upgrading existing buildings?

David: “No one wants to change!

There is a general lack of understanding and belief in the potential gains of energy efficiency.  Many folks don’t get that there are myriad upsides to improvements that will affect their business model, including many soft issues like productivity, tenant retention and brand position.  Utilities incentives generally are weak and must be re-designed to get the job done.”

Q. Will today’s college grads who want to become involved in improving our built environment need to know different things than their predecessors?

David: “This is all about ‘systems thinking.’  Tomorrow’s players in the green/sustainable, clean technology clusters will need to think in terms of ‘impact investing’ which combines the issues of environment, social and economic impacts into one thought process that make them codependent. Sustainability cannot be achieved without viewing the system as a whole.  Finally with the explosion of new technologies, students must learn to understand and communicate within a much broader landscape of disciplines.  Think integration!”

David’s talk on “Buildings: Design for Better Living” is open to the public Nov. 1st 4:30-5:50 p.m. in UW’s Douglas Forum on the main Seattle campus.

For more about the Environmental Innovation Practicum and its Speaker Series, check here.


What’s in a name? Perceptions and misperceptions

Several articles about oil shale caught my eye this past week including one on explaining that oil shale isn’t oil at all but kerogen. They also noted that getting that kerogen out of the ground and into a usable form uses more energy than the usable we’d get out of it.

That made me curious: who “branded” the stuff “shale oil”? It seemed like someone had coined a term and gotten it to stick despite it being misleading. The name today creates an impression of usefulness that doesn’t exist, of easy availability that’s not, of an independence on foreign oil that’s a myth. And they did it all with the use of one simple little 3-letter word: oil.

Turns out that’s not at all what happened. Shale oil was discovered and used way back in the 1880s. No doubt they named it as it appeared to them then — oily stuff in shale rock. An organic chemist figured out what it really was and named it “kerogen” in 1912. But the original name stuck. That’s not all that surprising as it’s way easier to remember than “kerogen” and creates an immediate understanding (or actually a misunderstanding) of what it is. That misunderstanding persists today and is creating the perception of opportunity that doesn’t really exist.

All the debates aside, it seems to me there’s a great lesson to be learned here about the potential power of coining a term that creates the perceptions you want and endures.

I’m generally not a fan of trying to coin a new industry term to promote a new business or product. It isn’t that it doesn’t work; there are some spectacular examples of where it has. It wasn’t really that long ago that none of us would have known was a blog was, or malware, or cloud computing, or carbon footprint. Oxford Dictionary officially added a ton of new words to the English language with its summer update including “brain candy” and apparently a lot of “auto-” words like “autozoom” and “auto-complete” plus a bunch of social media terms.  “LOL” made it. Made me LOL.

A lot of new terms are merely contractions of existing terms, combined to better explain something new. Sometimes creators of the truly new have no choice but to coin a new term because no existing word accurately describes their creation. But coining a term and getting it adopted into common use, even among a fairly narrow subsegment of any market, can be a big investment in time and money. In the tech space, if you can’t get industry analysts to adopt your new term, it’s usually dead.

If you’re going to go out and coin a new term, which I’ve seen countless entrepreneurs want to do, learn from the shale oil example.

1. Make it facilitate acceptance. Consider the emotional response the terms you’re considering are likely to evoke. Align that with the action you’re trying to spark. All those “auto-” words, for instance, immediately evoke a sense it’s going to be simple, helpful, fast.

2. Make it easy to remember. Short, simple terms that use existing, familiar words or combinations that are easy to grasp will stick better in your target audience’s minds. One or two words, maybe four syllables tops.

And don’t go down that path unless you’ve some reserves of your own in financing and patience.

P.S. Can you do a P.S. to a blog post? The image came from a building in Silverton, Ore. Despite the fact I’m not personally a fan of oil companies, I have an emotional attachment to old Texaco signs. My dad, gone 20 years this past spring, owned a Texaco station until his retirement my junior year of college. It’s easy to picture my dad in his Texaco uniform. Smiling. Always. My dad was great guy. Despite being painfully shy (no, obviously I didn’t take after him), he greeted strangers every day and made them feel welcome and important.  Taught me tons about excellent customer service and honest business. Great lessons.

How’s your geography?

Interesting story today courtesy of The New York Times on how primary through secondary students have performed on geography tests. I loved the Seattle Times’ headline for it as I thought it told the whole story: “Most students still lost on geography.” A Chicago Tribune sidebar offers a quiz to test each reader’s grasp of the subject, which I want you to go take! It demonstrates, among other things, that geography isn’t just about maps, but what’s happening in locations around the world.

When first out of college, marriage brought me to Upstate New York where I decided New York didn’t teach geography. “Iowa,” I’d answer when asked where I was from. “Oh, sure, potatoes,” was the response more often than you’d believe. Um, no, that’s Idaho, 1,400 miles further west. Oh well.

If you’re in the business of marketing clean tech products or advocating for environmental causes, you should care a lot if people in general and students in particular are geographically illiterate because it raises huge barricades to them understanding the story you’re telling.

An association of Italian cashmere sweater makers might subtly draw attention to the fact that demand for much cheaper Chinese cashmere has led to massive overgrazing which is turning swaths of China’s Alashan Plateau into desert. Shepherds are having to sell their goats because they’re starving. You can read more here if you’re interested. If consumers didn’t know China had massive grasslands and don’t grasp that overgrazing turns grasslands into desert, the Italian association has a much tougher story to tell.

A nonprofit encouraging different irrigation and farmland management practices might think they could leverage the massive Midwestern flooding to draw attention to their recommendations. But if the public a) don’t even realize we have huge rivers draining the massive center of the nation and b) can’t see the connection between land management and flooding and pollution, they have to start at square one to educate the public before they can get on with their real objective of affecting change.

As marketers look at how best to tell their story, they have to consider the basic level of understanding of the subject or issue around which they’ll be story telling. The old advice of “never assume” seems incredibly apropos.  Apparently on even basic things like geography, we’d be wise to do a little research before setting strategy.

Do you know, for sure, what your target audience knows about the background they need to grasp your story?


Five Great Ideas from Content Rules

Does the whole idea of “content marketing” scare you? Or are you wondering what the heck it even is? Then set those fears aside and pick up a copy of Content Rules by Ann Handley of MarketingProfs and C.C. Chapman, founder of Digital Dads.

The book is chock full of smart recommendations from successful content marketers, detailed how to instructions and case studies complete with “Ideas Your Can Steal.” Narrowing the good ideas down to a handful to cover here was tough. I focused on recommendations I hadn’t read elsewhere or ones with an interesting new angle to sage advice. Nearly all of them have entire chapters dedicated to fleshing out the details. These are merely highlights.

1.  Reimagine; Don’t Recycle

The gist of this chapter is summed up pretty well by a quote from social media consultant Jay Baer: “deconstruct that white paper and create an array of info snacks you can sprinkle across the Web, or package into smaller pieces of content.” I love that “info snacks” term. It isn’t about repurposing content you created, but creating a significant piece of content that merits breaking up into smaller pieces, each of which delivers value to your readers. Sort of like taking the subject of Entrepreneurial Marketing and carving it into 20 classes, I guess.

Among the examples is MarketingProfs’ State of Social Media Marketing Dec. ’09 research report. The 242-page survey of 5,140 marketers became a webinar, a major article, a number of smaller articles and blog posts and fodder for lots of publicity as others covered the report and the stats within it.

2.  Don’t Write Case Studies; Tell Customer Success Stories

Don’t just demonstrate the value of your offering. Tell the story to overcome objections early in the buying cycle. “The keys,” write the authors, “are to tell a story the intended audience wants to hear and to tell it with one simple imperative in mind. It helps to think of them less as case studies, which sounds clinical and detached and bloodless, and more like customer success stories, which sounds human and connected.”

3.  Make Over Your FAQs

“This is an online customer service center,” the authors state, and just like Customer Service, your FAQs should genuinely help. How? A few of their suggestions included:

  • Write answers, not descriptions.
  • Solve problems rather than shill services.
  • Show some personality.
  • Make the FAQ searchable

4.  Speak Human!

Organizations should sound like they’re run by people, posit the authors. Speak in a conversational tone, with personality, empathy and true emotion. Be appropriate to your audience, of course. But take a stand. Your readers need to know where you’re coming from, or how you feel about a topic.

5.  Ban Buzz Words

“They make us sound like Tools instead of humans.” Handley and Chapman composed a list of 18 buzz words to ban with a little help from their Twitter friends. On the list are loads of terms I know well from my tech PR days — such as “drill down,” “solution,” “incentivizing,” “users” and “best-of-breed.” I confess to being guilty of using several of their banded terms, not just in writing, but speech. I hereby resolve to stop that.

Instead, use the language your customers use. How do you know what that language is? Here’s a tip Handley and Chapman offered from Lee Odden, CEO of Top Rank Marketing in Minneapolis: “The language on social sites is like the canary in the coal mine. It can tell you an awful lot about your customers and how you can engage them.” Go see what language they’re using as they discuss your industry online.

Content Rules also contains a great, detailed list of 25 (and a half. They sneak in an extra) ideas of what to talk about when you think you have nothing to say. Among them is to “find a LinkedIn question you’d like to address and answer it; then invite your readers to offer their two pesos.”
Content Rules will definitely be on my class recommended reading list. Whether you’re trying to wrap your arms around how to use build your business or looking for ideas to give your blog a boost, they’re in here.

Ann and C.C., do you license reprints by the chapter?

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