Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Value of Engagement, Part Two

For context, catch up with The Value of Engagement Part One.

So in the last post, I alluded to engaging with blogs as not the destination, but the first step in online marketing. So where does it go from there? What's at the end of the river, and where does the rabbit hole lead? More literary references and mixed metaphors?

This isn't comprehensive by any means, but if the Internet is the next evolution of media then the Opinions page really is the precursor to online conversation, whether that conversation is taking place on a forum, in a newsgroup or in a blog post's comments section. The analogy isn't perfect; you could make the case that the Talmud is an extremely long community dialog between Torah scholars, for example. And it's true that newsgroups predated actual news websites by several years. But even in those mediums discussion had a logical starting point, whether it was an interpretation of the book of Genesis or early discussions (with spoilers!) of Return of the Jedi.

Of course, I was a little late to the party by Usenet standards, rolling into the party at 1990 or so when I first dialed into Prodigy (my 2400-baud modem was too fast for the phone lines in the area, so we had to dial it at 1200 baud.) It's also worth noting that I beat the Long September by almost three years, but more and more that's no longer a point of pride as a point of "oh Christ, I'm old!"

BBSes followed soon after, but Prodigy was my first real taste in real-time online conversations, and not coincidentally I was discussing games online with other gamers. My game of choice was Wasteland, still one of my favorite RPGs, and what made discussion on Prodigy awesome was that a representative from Interplay occasionally signed on to discuss the game with us. I still remember that first taste of online marketing - if you can call talking with fans of a 2-year-old game marketing - and how inclusive it feels when a company representative is talking to you directly.

That's the taste I tried to bring to WizKids when I engaged fans on the forums there. Sure I was the guy who dropped hints about new characters in coming sets to "chum the waters" and get them excited about what was next, but there's also a certain value to being able to interact directly with a company representative. One of WizKids more mercenary brand managers rightly called it an "added value," and I absolutely believe this is true when broken down into its simplest (IE, Business 1.0) form - online interaction is adding value to the end user experience.

OK, online interaction? What the hell is that? Let's do a step-by-step:

    1. Get on the Internet and find sites related to what you're talking about / selling / marketing / whatever. This is also the time to figure out things like how often people on those sites are talking. You want to make sure, at least at first, that you're hitting the most active sites. Ideally these should be sites created by the company, but we all know it's not a perfect world.
    2. Create an account if necessary, then start interacting.
Easy peasy. Maybe what I didn't say is more important. Note these not-steps:
    -1: Email the blogger without an introduction sending a press release.
    -2. Spam a forum with a press release or announcement with a zero-post-count account (one you just created just for that purpose, and you'll never use again.)
These seem really really obvious to me, but for the 99% of traditional marketers out there, they want to wring their hands and go [DRAMATIZATION] "why? Why must I do this? If I have to spend all this time actually interacting with my customers, when will I have the time to create workback schedules and smarm up with reporters? When will I have the time to flood my coworkers inboxes with step by step accounts of the useless old marketing strategies we used today?"

I kid, but there is actually a massive debate occurring in new marketing circles about this very topic right now. A few weeks ago, a popular and "influential" blogger in England named Tom Coates, who runs, was outreached to by a PR rep to sell something even though Coates didn't want to be solicited for anything. Coates himself blogs about social media, and attacked the problem from a social media angle - by creating a post and a now-famous Flickr image to make it very clear what happened and his stance on further solicitation. This was really the opening salvo of the debate.

Edel-colleague Simon Collister in our London office made an excellent post about this topic the other day, and weighed in with the following opinion - one I agree with 110%:
    So... [two penneth alert] for me the issue is two-fold: it's retrospectively about how the PR industry is missing the point about the social web and going forward how PR can engage with the online environment properly.

    Firstly, the PR industry misses the point with the social web/live web/blogosphere/whatever because it is far too process driven. PR people are ever used to writing a release, creating a media list and blanket mailing it out. This is partly the problem at the heart of Tom's predicament... [snip]

    However, working in an online social environment the PR industry needs to abandon process and adapt to working in a networked world of individuals. This invokes real effort, spontaneity, trust, genuine dialogue with real people. It's the stuff PR should have been about from day One but which got lost in the world of mass communications.

    It would mean that PR people would know who Tom is and know not to appraoch him. Tom is vociferous about not receiving press releases from people/companies/etc but other bloggers aren't.

    But it also means more than just pitching bloggers which is really a glorified version of media relations, but media relations done properly.

    PR done in the real way of the social web will - and I say 'will' because we haven't got there yet - mean companies (both PR and clients) being social. That way there will be no crow-barring of bloggers and social networks into horrible mass marketing campaigns. The social worth of an organisation will be there for people to choose to engage with from the outset.

    The problem is, of course, that this requires giving over control of the campaign to the 'crowd' and that is a huge wrench for most marketing and PR types. This means that their beloved 'process' is taken over by other people - YIKES!
Simon hit it out of the park with this by articulating something I've felt and attempted to implement for a long time. It's an uphill battle, because we're literally fighting decades of tradition - lazy tradition, the worst kind. The kind of tradition that doesn't want to change. The kind that says "this is the way it's always worked for us in the past, why should we do anything differently? Or my favorite label for it, dinosaur tradition.

Frankly Coates' case was just the beginning. This July at the BlogHer conference (a conclave of women bloggers, mostly but not exclusively mothers) the women there voiced this opinion, and last week as I was composing this post professional colleague Kaitlin Wilkins posted the "Blogger Outreach Code of Ethics" at Ogilvy PR's blog (source: link from a coworker on Friday.) They label the below as "take one," and I agree there needs to be some refinements (but I work for the competition, so others' mileage may vary!) but the code as it stands is:
  • We reach out to bloggers because we respect your influence and feel that we might have something that is “remarkable” which could be of interest to you and/or your audience.
  • We will only propose blogger outreach as a tactic if it complements our overall strategy. We will not recommend it as a panacea for every social media campaign.
  • We will always be transparent and clearly disclose who we are and who we work for in our outreach email.
  • Before we email you, we will check out your blog’s About, Contact and Advertising page in an effort to see if you have blatantly said you would not like to be contacted by PR/Marketing companies. If so, we’ll leave you alone.
  • If you tell us there is a specific way you want to be reached, we’ll adhere to those guidelines.
  • We won’t pretend to have read your blog if we haven’t.
  • In our email we will convey why we think you, in particular, might be interested in our client’s product, issue, event or message.
  • We won’t leave you hanging. If your contact at Ogilvy PR is going out of town or will be unreachable, we will provide you with an alternate point of contact.
  • We encourage you to disclose our relationship with you to your readers, and will never ask you to do otherwise.
  • You are entitled to blog on information or products we give you in any way you see fit. (Yes, you can even say you hate it.)
  • If you don’t want to hear from us again, we will place you on our Do Not Contact list – which we will share with the rest of the Ogilvy PR agency.
  • If you are initially interested in the campaign, but don’t respond to one of our emails, we will follow up with you no more than once. If you don’t respond to us at all, we’ll leave you alone.
  • Our initial outreach email will always include a link to Ogilvy PR’s Blog Outreach Code of Ethics.
Overall, I agree with what they're trying to do here and think this serves as a fine reference point for conversation (and others agree - see Jeremiah Owyang's post for more.) I'm not sure this goes far enough to address the point Simon so elegantly made in his post:
    [W]orking in an online social environment the PR industry needs to abandon process and adapt to working in a networked world of individuals. This invokes real effort, spontaneity, trust, genuine dialogue with real people. It's the stuff PR should have been about from day One but which got lost in the world of mass communications.
The Code still treats online PR as a process rather than working in a social network of individuals. In a network - in the "real world" - there are simply things that don't fit into a structured set of rules, into a process.

I have said before we need to figure out "how" to do this - frankly, we know how. It's a challenge dealing with individuals, but that's how you have to do it. It really is throwing out the old rules of engagement (to use CC Chapman's description) and not so much writing a new process as dealing with things on an individual level. You can no longer spam a press release to 500 people, get 100 hits and call it a success. But one good post on a forum related to your target audience, where 500 interested and passionate individuals might see it - now you're cooking with gas.

Next post: the rights and the wrongs of community interaction, from a couple of case studies in (what else?) games.

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