Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Value Of Engagement

I had an interesting discussion yesterday with a coworker who asked a common question when dealing with the folks here in EIS: "what value are you adding?" If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that, I'd have a lot of dollars.

But underlying that question is a sentiment that lies at the heart of both PR today and specifically what I do, and where I think we need to go from here. We (meaning, the New Marketing folk) have trained the traditional marketers to see the Internet as something of which they need to be aware, and in which they need to participate. That's good, but it's only the first step on a long road and unfortunately it seems that more and more, traditional PR practitioners see it as the destination rather than that first step.

The traditional PR "comfort zone" modus operandi is this:

    1. Examine product or service and create a catchy strategy for getting people exited about it.
    2. Call or write or email (aka, "pitch") magazine or newspaper with catchy product idea. This can be a clever press release, a press kit that may or may not relate to the product itself, or a "product sample" that the reporter can play with and then choose to keep. Or a combination thereof.
    3. Set up an interview with the reporter, where the PR person prepares the company's spokesperson with a series of questions the reporter could ask, the important things the spokesperson needs to talk about, and a little bio about the reporter that details what the reporter likes and dislikes.
    4. After the interview, the reporter writes the story, and PR provides them with images, answers follow-up questions, and so forth.
I realize I squeezed a lot of traditional PR know-how into four sentences and obviously glossed over some things, but if you reduce the total to four main components, it would look something like that.

Traditional PR people like that because it's safe and controlled (to a certain degree), but more importantly they can measure the value in such a thing. Another way of saying "what's the value" is "what's the ROI" (return on investment.) That's a marketing and advertising term that bled its way into PR after people realized the importance of our industry, and advertising and marketing people started migrating over to PR jobs. ROI can best be expressed by an equation:
    ROI = ((X*Y)^Z)/A, where X is the number of stories about a product, Y is the tone of those stories measured on a standard scale, Z is the circulation numbers of the publications, and A is the "investment" in time and resources (AKA $$$) spend on securing the coverage.
There's a reason people like this method: it's quantifiable, it's trackable, and in the end you can present hard numbers to a superior (or an auditor) and say "look at what we did with our budget!"

Author's Note: I was not a PR or business major, so I'm sure someone who studied this stuff will correct me on the formula and definitions above - but the spirit of it is correct.

So when faced with the Internet and "the blogosphere," it's not surprising to see traditional PR people looking for something sane and familiar. They see blogs and think: "blog = news outlet, blogger = reporter" and want to engage and measure appropriately. Several times I have run into the question, "why are we planning on outreaching to this blog when this other, completely unrelated blog has a much higher readership?"

Here's the thing: this really is the first step in a much larger process, and "success" should not be measured by the number of stories appearing on blogs and the total readership of those blogs. Why? Because that isn't where the interesting things are happening on the Internet. Sure, you should try to get bloggers to write about your stuff, but what's really interesting is in the comments sections in the blogs, and on the forums and newsgroups and email lists where real people are sharing their opinions of the product. The real measure of success isn't stories, it's sales, and you can have all the great stories in the world - but it ain't the reporters who are going to line up to buy your product. It's the people doing the commenting, the people engaged in the conversations.

Here's another way to look at it: when I was a tyke, I read two sections of the newspaper every morning, the comics and the Opinions page. The comics because they're funny, and they were still publishing Calvin and Hobbes back then. And the Opinions page because it was the most interesting section of the newspaper. Who wants to read the news, when you can read what people think about the news? What gives you more insight into your community (I use that term here to indicate "the town in which you live") - news about your town, or what the people in town think about the news about your town?

Of course, a lot of bloggers put their own opinions into stories, which is good - and it's one of the things that differentiates them from traditional news sources. Just like in literary studies, there's kind of an unwritten rule in blogging: if you're quoting a source (say, an article you picked up somewhere else or a song you're posting), then you should write at least as many lines discussing the quote, if not double the number of lines. It's a rule I haven't always followed, but it's one I try to follow as best I can, and many other bloggers do too.

But like the Opinion pages of yore, the most interesting perspective of the online community is in their discussion of goings-on. At WizKids, I used the community's reactions to identify short-term problems but also long-term trends, which we could then use to adjust our overall strategy. It's definitely an investment in time, but it's one that companies would do well to invest in more often.

UPDATE: Next post in series: the current debate about how to engage bloggers, and why it doesn't go far enough.

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