Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Shared content beats paid content and what you can do about it

OK, now we have the proof of what we all thought was true in the first place.

Content delivered through social media sharing is more effective than the same content delivered through paid advertising.

A piece from Ad Age Digital summarizes a study conducted by GE using the social media site BuzzFeed and facilitated by Vizu, a digital advertising measurement firm. The “GE Show” was distributed on BuzzFeed using both paid advertising and sharing. Attitudes of those who watched it each way were tested. In addition, a control group that had not seen the online piece at all was tested.

All three groups (sharing, advertising, control) were asked the question, “"What comes to mind when you think of General Electric (GE)?" Overall, 77% of those who saw the content via sharing had positive responses to the question compared to 55% who saw it via advertising and 42% who didn’t see it all.

The study also measured something called “brand lift” by specifically measuring the number of people that responded to the question using the word “creative.” The calculation reported wasn’t clear to me but the contention is that there was a brand lift differential of 138% between those who were exposed via sharing and those not exposed at all.

So what do businesses and organizations that are just a wee bit smaller than GE do about this?

I looked at some of the content. It’s pretty slick. Great quality video combined in some cases with neat interactivity. And it’s on message. Not the kind of content that’s within the budget of most marketing departments. It makes me wonder that if the content was good but not amazing would there still be a 20 point spread in positive reaction between those who viewed it via sharing and those via advertising. Probably not but its an academic point for most of us.

The message for most businesses is don’t worry about paid advertising. Just start creating content – white papers, video testimonials, case studies, how-to guides, handy reference material. Don’t bet on your content going viral and being seen by millions (hundreds would be very good). You’re better off concentrating on developing content that is of value to your target audience and then distribute it using a well-planned social media strategy. Better yet, find ways to have your customers participate in content creation. There are tons of online resources that will help you with all of that. If that doesn’t work for you, I can connect you with a very creative marketing firm that can help.

The results of the GE study are hardly startling. Research shows that word of mouth is more effective than advertising every time. You may not be able to duplicate GE’s results but if nothing else this study should tell you that if you’re not thinking about content marketing, it’s time.

That’s my take on this research and how it relates to the majority of organizations. What’s yours?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Six Pillars of Independent School Marketing

(Note to readers: Even though this post focuses on independent schools, the points made are easily transferable to other nonprofits and businesses. Don’t discount what can be learned)

After directing the marketing and communications activity of an independent school in Toronto for the past six years, I gave some thought to what has accounted for our success. Here, then are my six pillars of independent school marketing.

It starts with numbers. Even the most creative marketing efforts won’t be effective without a wide array of reliable data. You need a demographic and attitudinal profile of parents - current, new and prospective. You need to know what’s going on in your catchment area in terms of real estate and business.  It’s important that you do your own surveys and access other available research. All of this will allow you to more accurately put yourself in the shoes of prospective parents and develop positioning and messaging that hits the mark.

Fish where the fish are. Let’s face it – not every parent considering an independent school is going to be interested in yours. Wide-net techniques like advertising in high circulation newspapers are expensive and often ineffective when you’re really interested in a very narrow target. Once you've determined the profile of the prospective parent that is most likely to choose your school, figure out where to find them. Use mail drops to particular postal areas, advertising or presentations aimed at specific organizations, create cooperative opportunities with local businesses or service providers. Make sure you have the right online presence. The more laser-like your targeting is, the more results you will see.

Think outside in. Education is one of those fields where it’s easy to fall into professional patter that most parents don’t understand. "Differentiation" is an example of a word that most people can define (sort of) but few can apply in an educational context. Yes, prospective parents want educators to be experts but they need to be able to understand them. The key is to use plain language in your materials and presentations. More importantly, remember that the heart rules the head in most (if not all) decisions. You need to evoke emotional responses through images and words that speak to what parents really want for their children.

Your parents are customers. Think Zappos or Starbucks and provide your parents with an outstanding consumer experience. They are paying a lot of money to send their kids to your school and they have choices. This presents unique challenges in an educational setting because the product can’t always conform to the desires of your customers. There has to be integrity to the educational product and experience. But parents can still feel like their voice is being heard if the outcome isn’t the one they wanted. Respect and responsiveness must still be the basis of all communication. Every interaction with a parent – in the front office, in the classroom, in the tuition office, in every email or letter and e-newsletter, must let parents know how much they are valued and appreciated. Perhaps more importantly, there needs to be multiple channels - both online and off - that allow parents to provide opinions.

Constantly collaborate. Educators and administrators must be strategic partners. Meet with Principals and Vice Principals often and involve them in marketing planning and decision-making. The truth is that the educational staff determines the nature and the quality of the product and your job is to put the fruit of their efforts on a pedestal. They can be the source of great ideas and provide outstanding marketing content and events. Administrators have daily contact with parents and frequently speak to colleagues in other schools. They are invaluable sources of information. Your marketing efforts won’t be nearly as effective without them.

Listen. Very carefully – to all stakeholders – faculty, administrators, current and prospective parents, lay leaders, non-educational departments, support and maintenance staff. You may not always agree and it may try your patience, but there is something to be learned from every interaction. It will add richness to your understanding of the school. You would be amazed at how often the kernel of a great marketing idea comes from a conversation with a member of the office staff or one of the custodians. Listening also means monitoring social media and using it wisely. Encourage people to offer opinions – online and off. They will make you a better marketer.

Admittedly, these are pretty high level principles and each of them could be spun off into detailed discussions. But I think these represent a meaningful starting point.

Having said that, I’m interested in the opinions of others who are marketing independent schools. What are your six pillars?

Monday, January 9, 2012

“No” is not the end of the conversation

For salespeople, fundraisers and businesspeople, making sure that we learn something new from every interaction with a current or prospective buyer (or donor) can convert a “no” into future success.

This was brought to mind by a book that I am currently reading and an article I recently read - combined with a lesson learned early in my career.

The book is a classic. In fact, I’m almost embarrassed to say I am reading it for the first time. Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People is filled with timeless wisdom. Its insights are as relevant today as they were when it was published 76 years ago. They’re the kinds of things that will make you say, “Oh yeah, I know that” and then realize that you’re not putting them into action. Carnegie’s approach is all about putting the other person first with imperatives like “Become genuinely interested in other people” and, “Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.”

The article is from the current issue of Motivated magazine. In it, Stuart Knight argues that the key to realizing business and professional goals is what he calls “Powerful Conversations.” Meaningfully connecting with people, Knight argues, should be at the top of all of our to-do lists and is the ability that distinguishes the most successful people in any field. As he says, “Success … [is] not directly related to how many people you know, it has everything to do with the number of people who feel like you know them.”

So, how can we transform all of this great advice about conversations into something more results oriented? I was taught an invaluable lesson learned during my career in headhunting, which, by the way, is probably the world’s most challenging sales environment. In the course of any week, I would make at least 100 cold calls and more often than not, I didn’t get the answer I was looking for. But the owners of the agency drummed a very simple principle into our heads - even if you don't make a sale, learn something from every phone call. Discover something you didn’t know about the person the company or the industry. The point was to make every call worthwhile because you never knew when the information gained could be used to your advantage.

How can all of us involved in promoting our businesses, raising funds for a cause or selling a product, get greater value out of the thousands of solicitations we make every year – even when we get “no” for an answer? Easy. Just ask questions. The answers may produce leads, provide the basis for a future pitch or simply enhance our understanding. Here are some examples:

  • What do you think are the prospects for your industry in the coming year?
  • Who do you see as the leaders in the field? 
  • Do you think your charitable giving will increase or decrease this year?
  • What organizations are you volunteering for?
  • What charitable organizations do you think are doing the best job?
  • What are your company’s (or department’s) major goals for the year?
  • What do you think was the most notable advance in your industry last year?

Admittedly, this all relates to the rather low-tech realm of phone or face to face contact. But I think the principles can be adapted to e-communication and in fact successful use of social media lies in maximizing the potential to learn something from every interaction.

For me the key is to not regard “no” as the end of the conversation but rather to use it as a point from which to build relationships and increase knowledge.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Five steps for converting failure into success in 2012

How are you going to convert the failures of 2011 into success in 2012?

Many of today’s greatest business minds extol the benefits of failure. A search of the Harvard Business Review site yields hundreds of articles and blog posts about failure with titles like, “Strategies for Learning from Failure” and “Enjoy the Fun of Failure.” I even stumbled upon – a website devoted to failure.  There is clearly much to be gained from making mistakes but as I reflected upon the ups and downs of 2011, this was the thought that came to me:

Past failure can only lead to future success if you’re prepared to forgive yourself.

I know it sounds self-help-ish and the truth is that it does borrow from some insight I’ve gained from other parts of my life. Many pundits make it seem like failure almost magically leads to success. But I think there’s a strong business case to be made for the process of forgiveness being the only means by which failure can be converted to success. Here, then are my five steps to business forgiveness and success in 2012.

1. Acknowledge you have failed. Many initiatives die with a whimper and not a bang. You don’t officially declare them deceased; you just stop working on them. They gradually disappear from your to-do lists. Sometimes, we’re given a helping hand in accepting defeat. A domain renewal notice or worse, a loan call, may force you to make a decision. Otherwise it’s easy to procrastinate. So, start by taking an honest look at all the projects that you started in the past year (or earlier) and officially brand those that aren’t going anywhere a failure. You can’t possibly benefit from the experience until you do that.

2. Do the post mortem. Now that you’ve deep-sixed a number of initiatives, take an honest look at what went wrong. What could you have done differently? Even if on the surface, your action or inaction didn’t lead to the project’s demise, it’s worth it to think creatively about missed opportunities. You may want to wait a while before doing this. It may take some distance before you have the objectivity to be brutally honest. Alternatively, you may want to enlist the help of others and have them give you their analysis.

3. Take responsibility. Calculate the cost of the failure – in dollars, in time, in relationships. Don’t forget about the opportunity costs – other projects that lagged or languished. Don’t spare yourself. You need to know the real consequences of initiatives that have gone south.

4. But give yourself a break. First of all, there were probably lots of things that you did that were perfectly right. Take credit for them. There were likely many mistakes that you made that you couldn’t possibly have avoided. You may not have had the right experience. It may have been the first time using particular skills or levels of complexity. There may have been key information that you could only have known once you started.

In all likelihood, the actions of others and just plain luck also played a role. It wasn’t all your fault and you needn’t feel guilty for those things over which you had no control. This kind of analysis may allow you to see important signposts in future projects.

5. List the lessons learned. Now you’re at a point where you can really learn from your mistakes. Sum up the process above by formally or informally taking stock of the knowledge and experience that you’ve gained. More importantly, consider the ways in which you can put it to use on current and upcoming projects.

There’s inevitably a great deal of guilt and regret associated with failure. Taking the steps above will allow you to dispel those emotions, forgive yourself and truly convert failure into success in the coming year. Enjoy 2012.