The Overlooked Virtues of Direct Mail

Using direct mail can help you get into people's homes unlike any other communication tool or channel.

Using direct mail can help you get into people's homes unlike any other communication tool or channel.

Snail mail has gotten a bad reputation, even though it is often the most direct, cost effective way to deliver your message to someone's doorstep.

In fact, one of direct mail's primary virtues is that it goes to people's doorsteps, so you have a higher level of certainty someone will pluck it out of the mailbox and give it at least a cursory glance.

That is more than you can say for a TV ad people don't see while fast-forwarding pass it or a radio ad people don't hear while stopping to get gas.

Yes, many people don't read what comes in the mail. They quickly toss into the trash or recycling bin. But that's where creativity comes into play to catch someone's attention and persuade them to take a closer look.

One of direct mail's secret weapons is the ability to personalize the mailing. People tend to pay more attention when mail is addressed to them by name. Again, creativity is needed to use this moment to grab their eye, but you have this moment to work with, which is not always the case with other forms of paid media.

Another plus for direct mail is its familiarity. Going the mailbox is a routine. Opening mail, even junk mail, is usually a pleasant experience, except perhaps for bills that are due.

The formats for mail are also familiar. We recognize letters, postcards, brochures and flyers. Generally, we associate them with information. They tell us about important meetings, new restaurants or serious issues that affect us.

Unlike a TV or radio ad that is here now and gone, mail is, well, tangible. It is right thee in your hand. Direct mail is also fungible. You can read it now or read it later. You can even retrieve it from the trash. And mail doesn't shout at you, like the rabid-looking car salesman on billboards or late-night television.

Another virtue of direct mail is its shareability. Before Facebook and other social media, people shared mail. "Hey, did you see that postcard announcing a new development in our neighborhood?"

Marketing these days is all about segmentation. Direct mail is the best choice when you are trying to reach a geographic segment – a neighborhood, a part of a city or a region. Electronic media may boast about multiple impressions and a newspaper placement ad may have considerable reach, but only direct mail can target specific mailboxes

Online ads can be aimed at certain demographics or buying habits, but they can't force an interaction as personalized as opening a piece of mail. Direct mail also can be sent to targeted names on a database.

Direct mail is a great companion to larger marketing campaigns, especially ones involving contests or coupons. Success is easy to track because you can count entries or redeemed coupons.

Even with all its benefits, direct mail isn't the right answer to every marketing challenge. But it shouldn't be haughtily dismissed just because it relies on snail mail. Mailboxes remain one of the most constant and reliable channels to deliver your message.

Pitching Subtlety as a Brand Signature

Buck Mason founders Erik Schnakenberg and Sasha Koehn are committed to crafting clothing that outlives trends, weathers use and wears true-to-character.

Buck Mason founders Erik Schnakenberg and Sasha Koehn are committed to crafting clothing that outlives trends, weathers use and wears true-to-character.

Only in the clothing world could a company turn neutral colors, homespun jeans and T-shirts into a brand differentiator.

Buck Mason is a brash startup all about bucking trends. It sells "classic heartland cool" men's clothes in neutral colors that no contemporary fashion magazine would feature. None of its clothing bears a visible Buck Mason logo. And Buck Mason devotes a lot of its website real estate to a visual explanation of how it makes its classic denim jeans and a mini-movie called "Homemade."

It is just offbeat enough to attract a lot of media attention, including a bit on "Shark Tank," where company co-founders Erik Schnakenberg and Sasha Koehn spurned an offer by Mr. Wonderful.

"We're committed to crafting clothing that outlives trends, weathers use and wears true-to-character," says Schnakenberg and Koehn. "The garments we design aren't meant to be different; they're simply meant to be perfect."

The Buck Mason website tells the story of making denim from century-old looms in North Carolina to construction of garments in an old-school clothing factory in Los Angeles. Made in America is more than a tagline. It is a brand definition.

The company shows its contemporaneity by selling its products in bundles for the fashion-challenged software engineer or the guy too lazy to shop for himself. You also can buy Buck Mason's limited wardrobe offerings of jeans, T-shirts, dress shirts, hats and belts a la carte.

Buck Mason is an interesting example of a company using marketing PR instead of advertising. It also appears to be an example of a company that created a story to animate its brand and provide content for marketing PR.

Buck Mason doesn't pitch fashion or value pricing.  It wins the day by promising a classy subtlety that will make a young man stand out in the crowd.

Amazon and Customer Relationship Management

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos claims he does not recognize the Amazon depicted in the New York Times story, which described the company as a "bruising workplace."

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos claims he does not recognize the Amazon depicted in the New York Times story, which described the company as a "bruising workplace."

A Facebook friend posted, "Just purchased items today from Amazon before reading about how it treats its employees. This will be my last order from Amazon."

The post succinctly captures the challenge Amazon and other businesses with questionable workplace standards will face as consumers act on their "relationships" with these companies. It is the downside, if you will, of customer relationship management.

You can spend a lot of time and energy currying relationships with customers, only to see it flash away with a "crisis of confidence" in the relationship. Amazon offers great customer service and value, but it it comes at a price of running the equivalent of a huge sweat shop, then no thanks.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has mounted a vigorous defense of his company and its culture, which the Times' story headline called a "bruising workplace." In a communication to Amazon staff members following the New York Times exposé that relied on interviews of 100 former company employees, Bezos said he wouldn't want to work for a company with the traits described in the article. But he also said that isn't the company he knows as Amazon.

While wise to engage quickly and unreservedly about the issue, Amazon will have to do more than talk about the true nature of its culture. To win back some disenchanted customers, it will need to demonstrate that isn't the company's culture – or won't be any longer.

The distasteful picture of a day in the life of an Amazon worker was magnified by a contemporaneous Netflix announcement that it would grant up to a year's leave for new fathers and mothers. This employee decision was designed in large part to retain and recruit top-flight young talent. But it also showed a positive face externally to Netflix customers. The decision aided customer bonding.

Even by Bezos description over the years of what makes Amazon tick, it is clear the company places innovation and customer service above all else. It may not quite as simplistic as Donald Trump's "I'm a winner and you're a loser" mantra, but it isn't warm and fuzzy either.

Perhaps you can't become the world's largest retailer by being warm and fuzzy, but by the same token you may not keep all your customers by telling a woman who suffered a miscarriage to go on a work trip the next day.

Amazon is extraordinarily true to its brand promise. But as Wal-Mart has discovered, what it takes to achieve your brand promise can get in the way of customer relationships.

Examples of Effective Newsjacking

While many people saw a funny video of a young fan, the Titans PR shop recognized a great opportunity for newsjacking.

While many people saw a funny video of a young fan, the Titans PR shop recognized a great opportunity for newsjacking.

The Tennessee Titans showed a mastery of newsjacking when the NFL team responded to a popular YouTube video of a 3-year-old crying when he learns Marcus Mariota won't return  as the Oregon Ducks quarterback.

The Titans PR shop quickly arranged for Mariota to cut a video aimed directly at Clive Johnson, who comes from a family devoted to the Ducks. Mariota reassured the youngster the Ducks would of fine this fall without him, then promised to send the boy his highly sought after Tennessee Titans jersey.

Mariota said he hoped Clive could be both a Ducks fan and a Titans fan.

The Titans promoted the video and jersey giveaway on its website with the fetching teaser line: "You know that thing about taking candy from a baby? Try taking a quarterback away from a toddler."

The story got picked up, especially in Oregon where most people root for the Seattle Seahawks.

For the Titans, it was another chance to showcase the team's flashy new QB and his reputation as a level-headed good guy just as fall camp opens.

For PR junkies, this is a great example of converting user-generated content – a widely circulating home video – into an appealing, ready-to-go news hook.

Another good example of newsjacking involves Arby's tweets as Jon Stewart departed The Daily Show. Stewart has made relentless fun of Arby's during his 16-year run, but Arby's showed class by acknowledging the pokes, but praising the pokester and calling Stewart a friend.

Even politicians can newsjack. Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders scored the most retweeted comment during the first GOP debate. His tweet – "It's over. Not one word about economic inequality, climate change Citizens United or student debt. That's why the Rs are so out of touch." – was a compact message to his expanding political base.

Finding Success on Social Media

Successful use of social media requires treating fans and followers like friends.

Successful use of social media requires treating fans and followers like friends.

Many organizations still use social media as just another advertising channel. They should view social media more like a community.

While social media platforms vary widely, they share a common characteristic of being community-based. People use social media to interact with other people. They weigh their engagement based on common interests and authenticity. Participation is personal and voluntary.

So pushing marketing messages on social media platforms can miss the point of social media. Participants don't check their Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Twitter feeds to listen to you; they tune in to engage.

Success on social media requires engagement. You can still be on a marketing mission, but you have to offer more than your key message. Here are some suggested avenues to success:

1. Offer something useful. It may be an update on fashion trends, a short how-to video on a vexing household chore, an invitation to a clever event or a visual explanation of the process to refinance the mortgage on a house. You aren't selling as much as sharing, with a goal of building or deepening a relationship.

2. Deliver something delightful. Share a backstory, pictures your customers took or key milestone. Make your posts personal to humanize your organization. Invite reactions and new shares from your community.

3. Create a conversation. A great way to start a conversation is to ask a question and acknowledge and interact with people who respond with answers. Some conversations may be frivolous, while others are more serious. Be quick to point out great ideas or suggestions. Be just as quick to address concerns or criticisms. Treat responders as if they were family.

4. Give them a place to click. Customer acquisition remains an underlying goal, so give your social media community clear directions of where to learn more about your products or services. It is usually a website, but it can be an online "newsroom" or a blog. Avoid making this a hard push. Cast it more like an invitation. Track those who accept the invitation, so you can follow up.

5. Treat them like insiders. Make your community feel special. Offer special deals. Give them behind-the-scenes insights. See yourself as the neighbor who hosts the July 4th barbecue and fireworks show on your front driveway. Make yourself irresistible to refuse.

Social media changes rapidly, so don't fall in love with any strategies or tactics. Algorithms can change overnight, requiring new approaches.

At the same time, don't be afraid to experiment. Being unique and different has value on social media.

Social media should be part of an overall marketing strategy, not an end to itself. It is much easier – and much cheaper – to try, fail and correct course on social media than in other forms of marketing.

Most of all, social media can be a lot of fun. You won't always accumulate a huge following overnight, but you can steadily build a loyal community of followers that becomes a brand asset.

Related Link: The Five C’s of Social Media Success

Newsjacking Versus News Releases

Earning media coverage by constantly pitching stories, including ones with flimsy news value, can seem depressingly hard and frustrating. Try newsjacking for a refreshing change.

Newsjacking allows you to hop on a trending topic with your own spin or comment, delivering your key message in a powerful, unfiltered way.

Newsjacking is a concept coined by David Meerman Scott for jumping on a trending topic with your own spin or comment. The advantage of newsjacking is that you are hopping onto a freight train already moving. The benefit of newsjacking is that your pile-on can be more message-centric.

In the media relations world, you need to jump through hoops to gain the attention of reporters, who receive hundreds of story pitches and treat many of them dismissively. All those hoops can obscure the main point you want to get across in your earned media attempt.

The 2013 Super Bowl blackout resulted in two of the best known consumer brand newsjackings. Oreo tweeted that people should use the blackout as a timeout to indulge a childish delight by pouring a glass of milk and dipping the popular cookie sandwich. Tide improvised with a tweet that said, "We can't get your #blackout, but we can get your stains out." Both were retweeted thousands of times at a value of millions of dollars in exposure. Their highest value, however, was in the targeted message they delivered at a time when people were listening.

Waiting around for major events to newsjack isn't a very productive media relations strategy, so you need to develop and pitch stories. But newsjacking should be an element in your plan – and an example of how to think of opportunities to drive your message, not just rack up column inches or blog references.

It's worth recalling that Scott also encourages marketers to create their own publishing platforms. To be effective, these platforms need constant content feeding. It is a perfect place for the media release the boss made you send, but will never see the light of day. And it is the perfect place to add more exciting content – including your newsjacking tweets or events –  that might appeal to reporters, bloggers and your own consumers.

Self-publishing platforms are a smart choice in an era when consumers have become their own content editors. You need to package your content so they can find what they want, but you can give them a lot of piles to search.

And your clever newsjacking will act as a neon sign for the media, online influencers and consumers as they seek you out online at your always open publishing platform.

This will be much more effective than trying to plug weak stories, me-too comments or non-news.

Include Online Influencers in Your Media Relations Strategy

Growing an army of online influencers is an important part of your media relations strategy. 

Growing an army of online influencers is an important part of your media relations strategy. 

You’ve built your media list, filling it with great contacts from local and national media. You’ve included television, radio, newspapers and magazines. Is something missing? Yes. You’ve forgotten online influencers. 

Online influencers are an essential part of any robust media relations strategy. Online influencers include bloggers. Some may not have an official blog, but they have significant followings on social media. 

Online influencers are often more topic-specific than traditional media. In these days of shrinking newsrooms, most reporters cover a wide range of issues. Most bloggers and online influencers tend to focus on specific interests. They have followers, often in large numbers, interested in the same topics. If your business is related to these interests, partnering with an online influencer can create a direct line to your target audience. 

After you’ve decided to connect with online influencers, the question becomes how. Here are a few suggestions for how to connect with online influencers. 

1. Check your media database. Most media databases include prominent bloggers with significant followings. This is a great way to identify some of the most famous bloggers who write about businesses similar to yours. However, if you want to partner with one of these bloggers, be prepared to pay. Most popular bloggers are willing to partner with businesses, but they expect to be paid for the privilege. Their blog is a business. Don't rule this out. A great sponsored post by a top blogger may be more valuable than an advertisement. 

2. Check your social media followings. If you’re active on Twitter and Facebook, take a look at your followers who you interact with the most. Twitter is usually a better platform for this than Facebook, given its one-on-one nature. It’s also very easy to look at Twitter follower profiles to check out their number and quality of followers. If they are blogging, most will link to their blogs on their profiles. 

Instagram is another great platform for finding online influencers. If one of your followers has a large following on Instagram that could be enough to consider them an online influencer. Note that Instagram followings may be smaller than other social media, but the level of engagement on this platform is often higher. If your business has a physical location, be sure to look to see if anyone has checked in to your business. Many people might have checked into your business without finding your account so be sure to follow them. 

3. Hold a social media contest. Having a Instagram contest is a great way to grow your social media following and find great online influencers. Ask people to use a particular hashtag to tag their Instagram photos. Have a physical location? You have even more options. Consider setting up a selfie station. Make sure to follow and engage with everyone who participates in the contest. 

After you’ve grown your list of online influencers you can start offering special promotions and opportunities to keep them engaged. These influencers can be powerful brand ambassadors.

Personalizing a Brand Promise

TOMS CEO Blake Mycoskie fits a Peruvian child with shoes. The company recently utilized virtual reality to help tell its story. 

TOMS CEO Blake Mycoskie fits a Peruvian child with shoes. The company recently utilized virtual reality to help tell its story. 

Virtual reality could expand from video gaming to empathetic storytelling, placing viewers in the middle of the action worlds away.

TOMS developed a virtual reality video that transports its shoe buyers to a dusty, mountainous village in Peru where they see the faces of children who receive free shoes as part of the company's buy-one, give-one philanthropy.

The TOMS store on NW Burnside Street in Portland is just one of seven around the world with the equipment to play the 4-minute video, which had its inspiration in a TED talk by virtual reality film producer Chris Milk. TOMS executives saw virtual reality video as a way to dispel disbelief in its cause marketing One-For-One brand promise.

Critics don't dispute the reality of TOMS donating shoes. They take aim at its claims that half of all TOMS profits go to philanthropy, asserting instead that buyers actually pay for two pairs of shoes in the purchase price. Other critics condemn TOMS for failing to locate factories in the countries and communities where it gives away shoes to poor people.

The TOMS virtual reality video is unlikely to dispel those criticisms. However, it will make the TOMS brand promise more personal for its loyal customer base because it draws them deeper into the giving experience than a regular video or a photo gallery.

Produced for VRSE by Oregonian Susan Hebert, the video zooms over the remote area where the Peruvian village is located, takes you along the bumpy road into town and plops you among the villagers. You see children in their schoolyard, watch as they are measured for new shoes and enjoy dancers in native costumes. At times, the children look straight at you and, in a couple of cases, actually greet you.

The video is part of what TOMS calls its "Give One, Experience One" campaign. Other than flying to Peru, it is the next best thing to actually being there to see your contribution to philanthropy at work.

Carole Conkling experiencing TOMS new virtual reality experience at the company's Portland store. 

Carole Conkling experiencing TOMS new virtual reality experience at the company's Portland store. 

Virtual reality filmmaking involves using a camera array to shoot a panoramic, 360-degree scene. The technique produces four simultaneous frames that when viewed through special goggles give the illusion you are watching something occur around you.

The TOMS viewing site in Portland is in the corner of a store, next to the coffee bar, which supports improved water supplies in rural villages. It consists of a single swiveling chair. You move your head or swivel in the chair to scan the full scene. You are, in effect, there.

In his TED talk, Milk calls virtual reality video an untapped format for storytelling, especially for stories that draw on empathy. You don't have to paint a picture to fire someone's imagination; you place them at the scene to experience it first-hand. You are not part of an audience; your experience is unique, much as it might be if you were on location yourself. 

It was an adroit choice by TOMS to use this pioneering storytelling technique, which adheres to the company's social entrepreneurship reputation. (The Portland TOMS store has a wall-sized map depicting the various pathways of its business philanthropy, which also include eyewear donations.)

While virtual reality video may not be a tool that is available or affordable enough for most companies and organizations to pursue, it will be, especially as its 360-degree format is adapted to computer and mobile device screens so you don't have to wear special headgear. Google Cardboard already exists for DIY "immersive experiences."

The lesson for today taught by the TOMS video is that fresh approaches to storytelling can make tried-and-true stories come alive again.

The Art of Presentations

Effective electronic presentations leave a lasting impression that reinforces key points voiced by the speaker. Electronic presentations are invaluable sidekicks.

Effective electronic presentations leave a lasting impression that reinforces key points voiced by the speaker. Electronic presentations are invaluable sidekicks.

Debates persist over whether or not to use electronic presentations to accompany your speech, tutorial or classroom lecture. The fundamental question to ask is whether your electronic presentation will add value to what you say.

If you use your presentation as a teleprompter, reading each bullet point, the audience will stop listening to you and just read for themselves. If your presentation consists of impenetrable charts and graphs, they will get weary of watching. If your presentation contains slides crammed from corner to corner with words, charts and tiny pictures, they will start looking at their smartphones.

Think of an electronic presentation as a sidekick. If you were a musician, your presentation would be the bass. If you were a magician, your presentation would be the beautiful girl you saw in half.

The purpose of a well-conceived electronic presentation is to underline key points in your talk. Think of television news anchors who have an image, sometimes with limited amount of text, in the background to reinforce news items.

Audiences differ, so the style of electronic presentations needs to match those differences. If your speech is inspirational, your slide deck needs to convey inspiration. If your speech is more technical, your slide deck should be meatier.

Rick Enrico, CEO of SlideGenius and writing for ragan.com, describes three presentation styles used by highly successful public speakers – all of which follow the sidekick metaphor, but which match up with audience needs, speaker preferences and subject matter demands.

The first style is what he calls the Massayoshi Takahashi method. Enrico says Takahashi, a computer programmer by training, uses single words or short phrases rendered in large type on each slide as part of a fast-paced presentation style that keeps audiences engaged. He doesn't read the word or phrases, but they sum up what he is talking about. They are, in effect, a series of key messages. Takahashi believes his method requires his audience to be active listeners as he hustles through his slide deck.

Enrico attributes another style to Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig. The Lessig method involves adorning each slide with a sentence or phrase that becomes the center point for his comments. He uses graphic techniques, such as putting key words in a bolder color, to create emphasis and visual variation. This approach acts like the thesis for an essay. You can see the argument and listen to the speaker marshal the points to sustain the thesis.

The third style Enrico describes belongs to marketer Seth Godin. He combines text and image to tell a visual story. This allows some points to convey an emotional charge. The key for this approach, Enrico says, is to use quality images and lean text – akin to designing a magazine layout or a billboard.

All three methods depend on what's on the slide – not the transition to the slide, which often is distracting or even confounding.

All three methods require speakers thinking about what they want to say and using their electronic presentations to add value to their words.

Successful speakers regard electronic presentations are part of a team – the part of the team that plays a solid supporting role helping the main player – you – connect with your audience.

Talking with Customers Not at Them

Nintendo company leadership (pictured here in puppet form) made the mistake of talking at their customers rather than with them during the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo.  

Nintendo company leadership (pictured here in puppet form) made the mistake of talking at their customers rather than with them during the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo.  

Talking directly to your customers is often a great way to tell your story. However, this approach can have unintended consequences.

Nintendo learned this lesson after an angry reaction from its customers following its presentation at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). In 2013, Nintendo made the decision to forgo use of press releases to announce new offerings and instead communicate directly with consumers through pre-recorded video broadcasts. For the past two years, the broadcasts have been well-received. 

However, this year’s broadcast backfired and fans were very angry about Nintendo’s new game offerings. After more information about the games was released, the initial reactions started to soften, but some of the damage was already done. Here are three things that Nintendo could have done to prevent negative reactions from its fans. 

1. Allow for two-way communication
Communicating to your customers directly can be a great idea, but make sure that communication offers some form of two-way communication. It's important to talk with your customers, not at them. Nintendo’s pre-recorded video statement did not allow anyone – fans or journalists – to ask questions. If fans and journalists had the opportunity to ask questions, many initial concerns could have been assuaged, and Nintendo could offer more context. 

2. Give an exclusive preview to a small group
Also, with an interactive medium like video games, video trailers are not the best way to demonstrate what the experience of playing a video game is like. Nintendo might consider allowing a small group of bloggers and journalists to play the games prior to its announcement, with an agreement that they would not post their thoughts until after the broadcast. 
 
3. Perform research
While Nintendo is a creative company that offers unique products, the company sometimes seems hopelessly out of touch with what its fans actually want. The E3 offerings demonstrated a clear disconnect. Part of the miscommunication might be attributed to cultural differences since Nintendo is a Japanese company. However, if the company was better at testing its messaging with fans, it could avoid similar difficulties in the future. 
 

B-Roll, Weed and Digital Earned Media

Portland women smoking pot while playing Monopoly is just one of 21 B-Roll videos that an advocacy group shot to change the visual image of recreational marijuana use in Oregon.

Portland women smoking pot while playing Monopoly is just one of 21 B-Roll videos that an advocacy group shot to change the visual image of recreational marijuana use in Oregon.

Making something seem normal is a marketing ploy perfected by the tobacco industry, used by the Harvard Alcohol Project and now employed by pot advocates.

Tobacco marketers surrounded people with posters, ads, cowboys and product placements.  The Harvard project convinced movie and television directors to insert designated drivers into their scripts. Pot advocates are using B-Roll.

B-Roll is video developed by a third party and submitted to news outlets. Usually, B-Roll consists of so-called secondary video footage used by television stations and movie producers as background. However, in the digital media age, B-Roll is taking on greater significance. It has become an earned media vehicle.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based marijuana advocacy group, has released 21 videos in the form of B-Roll with no audio that depict pot smoking by normal people of all adult ages, cooking in their kitchens, playing board games or doing yoga. The group shared the B-Roll videos with televisions stations to replace other B-Roll, which it says typically depicts pot smokers as stoners in seedy settings or rock festivals.

Because Oregon's recreational marijuana law becomes effective July 1, the group wanted to give TV stations and other digital news outlets scenes that "define something new." All the videos supplied to local news outlets were shot in Portland to add to their authenticity as B-Roll.

But instead of just appearing as the visual backdrop for stories about legal weed, the advocate-supplied B-Roll became the core of an extensive news story that ran on several KGW-TV news segments.

The pot-smoking B-Roll is an example of the new world of media relations in which staff-starved news outlets have welcomed third-party content. On this case, the B-Roll itself became the storyline that earned media coverage.

Promoting behavioral or attitude change is not easy. Visual media has for a long time been an essential element of such promotional efforts – a well known actor lighting up, a favorite sit-com featuring a designated driver or cross-walk signals with two same-sex figures holding hands. Third-party content, sometimes called brand journalism or native advertising, is now becoming a staple of PR and marketing pitches.

Setting up and shooting 21 videos of "normal" pot smoking cost some money, but a lot less than shooting a commercial and paying for air time. Pitching the B-Roll videos for earned media coverage, even if only one TV station bit, will put the story in front of more eyeballs than a public service announcement or even a sponsored segment on a non-prime time news show.

The opportunities for earned digital media are expanding. People with stories to tell or behaviors to influence should expand their creativity to take advantage of those opportunities.

Trust = Barrier to Earned Digital Media Coverage

Digital media outlets are more open these days to content supplied by PR firms. At the same time, reporters remain highly skeptical of PR professionals who they claim too often provide misleading information.

The findings come from the 2015 Media Influencers Report prepared by D S Simon, a digital video communications firm. "Communicators are missing out on significant opportunities to earn media with their content in the digital space," the report says.

More than three-quarters of producers and journalists who responded to survey questions indicate they have used video they didn't produce. Almost the same percentage expressed willingness to post links or entire videos to digital outlets affiliated with television and radio stations, newspapers, magazines and blogger sites.

"This provides an unequaled opportunity for direct communication of the entire PR or marketing message to consumers," says Doug Simon, CEO of D S Simon.

However, PR professionals need to be careful not to foul their own nest. Ninety percent of producers and reporters say they have been misled by PR professionals, with a quarter of them saying they are misled often, which means there is an underlying lack of trust. A common problem is the failure to include proper disclosures on submitted video content.

There also is a gap in taking advantage of opportunities for "brand integration," which involves combining earned and paid media in a communications channel. Simon says it is easier for marketers to go for paid media instead of scratching a little harder for ways to earn media coverage.

The voracious appetite of media for fresh or compelling content, especially video content, is what has wedged open the door for third-party submissions. TV stations simply don't have enough film crews to fill up all the time slots devoted to news, which is why, according to the report, 93 percent of them accept third-party video. More than 80 percent of website producers, 78 percent of bloggers and 73 percent of magazines follow the same practice.

While B-Roll (pre-filmed material that often serves as background) is the top source of third-party digital content for TV stations, website producers and bloggers depend on it for infographics. Virtually all media outlets use images supplied by third-parrty sources. Newspapers, magazines, websites, bloggers and even radio stations will link or include entire videos on their online platforms.

The report suggests digital platform managers look for news ideas on social media. Facebook and Twitter are by far the greenest pastures for producers and reporters, but there is significant attention paid to LinkedIn, YouTube and Instagram.

Television producers and newspaper assignment editors are the most likely to accept a story pitch via social media, but you can get luck with radio and website editors and bloggers, too.

As barriers have crumbled between public relations, marketing and advertising, new opportunities have risen for brand integration. Simon says this is still an emerging arena in which 50 percent of the PR professionals who inquire about it are shuttled off to news outlet advertising departments.

"Improving the quality of your creative content, pitch angles and relationships with the media increases the percentage of media you earn rather than pay for," says Simon. "While brand integration has a role, earning digital media is a more credible and authentic way to communicate with your key audiences."

More to Segmentation than Age

Whole Foods Market announced a new chain of grocery stores aimed at younger, more price-conscious Millennials, but may have oversimplified its segmentation by overlooking the ageless ways it attracts food buyers.

Whole Foods Market announced a new chain of grocery stores aimed at younger, more price-conscious Millennials, but may have oversimplified its segmentation by overlooking the ageless ways it attracts food buyers.

No one denies we live in a segmented marketplace. But the segmentation may be a lot more complex than merely dividing us up by age, gender or geography.

As Katie Martell, writing for ragan.com, pointed out in a blog, Whole Foods Market managed to miss the demographic mark and diss other age cohorts with its announcement of a new chain of food stores designed especially for Millennials.

It is an example of oversimplifying segmentation.

Millennials are about to overtake Baby Boomers as the largest population segment, but they are hardly a monolithic group. To design a grocery store just for them may prove a tricky task.

What's interesting about Whole Foods Market is its broad appeal across demographic, geographic and even income groups. A CFM team spent an entire day at the Whole Foods Market in Seattle's University District. The diversity of customers, especially considering the relative prices for food, was astonishing. What drew people to the store – in some cases from miles away – was Whole Foods Market's  commitment to quality organic fruits, vegetables, meat and seafood.

We interviewed housewives, professionals on their lunch break, a mailman and college students. What they bought and how much they spent varied, but their reasons for coming were pretty much the same. The mailman, who drove to the store from many miles away, called it "inconvenient quality."

Several of those we interviewed joked about the chain's unofficial nickname of "Whole Paycheck." But that didn't deter them from shopping at the store.

The winning pitch our team made to provide PR for the first Whole Foods Market store in Portland was titled, "It's all about the food." Fresh. Reliably sourced. Artistically displayed. Those aren't qualities limited to an age group. They appeal to a wider span of people.

In announcing its new store concept, Whole Foods Market talked about appealing to "tech savvy" consumers and offering lower-priced products in a more streamlined store format. Being tech savvy has almost nothing to do with selectivity of what you eat. Food consumers who value an all-organic store are willing to pay a premium price, but still shop for "bargains." Many grocery stores can be ponderous, but Whole Foods Market has a format that is easy to shop and which has been widely copied by other grocers.

As a regular Whole Foods Market customer (and a non-Millennial), I see the chain's greatest challenge as remaining different as competitors emulate what it offers. We drive out of our way to buy meat and seafood at our favorite Whole Foods Market, but make another trip to a nearby New Seasons to buy produce and fruit.

The Whole Foods Market we patronize offers a "tech savvy" Instacart option, where you can call in your order and pick it up and pay for it at a designated check-out line. It's a great, convenient option, but not a substitute for personally looking at the meat and seafood counters for the freshest, most appealing choices and for seasonal specials.

So far, I've never seen anyone checking out at the Instacart line. But I've stood in line at the meat counter along with people of all ages.

Negative Space More Than a Pretty Face

Negative space is not wasted space. It points to the key message of an ad, brochure, invitation of PowerPoint presentation.

Negative space is not wasted space. It points to the key message of an ad, brochure, invitation of PowerPoint presentation.

If you are one of those people who point to open space on a design for a brochure, advertisement or PowerPoint and suggest putting in more copy, stop it. Open space isn't there by accident.

Negative space, as graphic designers refer to it, helps cue the eye of where to go. It is a critical, not an accidental aspect of a design.

Pages, ads or slides crammed with words, charts and images make it harder for viewers to know where to look first. Visual confusion can quickly lead to frustration. When it is to hard to fathom, readers put down a brochure, turn the page of a publication or stop paying attention to the slide presentation.

The notion of "clean design" incorporates wise use of open space. An effective page, ad or slide centers on a dominant feature that isn't crowded by a lot of lesser items. That feature delivers the key message, with open space pointing the way.

Negative space must be proportional to the featured element. That is achieved when the open space is part of the overall design, not just the space left uncovered by copy.

The absence of an image or words can be its own message. Think of a full-page newspaper ad that is mostly blank, with just a few words: "This is what newspapers look like in countries that censor journalists who dare to report the news."

Sometimes negative space can tell its story by how it is designed. The cover of "Peter and the Wolf" employed negative space in the shape of a boy's head, encircled by the wolf on the prowl. The curving wolf would have been meaningless without the boy's negative-space silhouette.

Cramped layout equates for most viewers to loud TV or radio ads. Jam-packed designs have the same negative effect as a pitchman screaming on air.

For reviewers who wear green eyeshades and want to squeeze every penny's worth of value out of an buy or piece of printed material, open space must seem like a waste. But rest assured, open space is one of the best investments per square inch you make to surround quality content.

There is nothing negative about negative space. It is more than a pretty face.

Unusual and Outrageous Keys to Earned Media

Carl's Jr. leveraged its brash brand personality to earn scads of media coverage, including a live segment on the Today show, on the introduction of its belly-busting "barbecue in a bun" burger.

Carl's Jr. leveraged its brash brand personality to earn scads of media coverage, including a live segment on the Today show, on the introduction of its belly-busting "barbecue in a bun" burger.

The value of earned media is to tell your story inside the news hole, not in the boundaries of advertising space. There is no better example of effective earned media than the promotion this week of Carl's Jr. Thickburger.

Brash is part of the band personality for Carl's Jr. Playing off that brash image, it introduced what it calls an entire barbecue in a bun – an oversized burger, accessorized with tomato, lettuce, pickle, ketchup, cheese, hot dog and potato chips. This puppy weighs in at 1,030 calories and 64 grams of fat.

Since the earned media opportunity was spun out, news outlets have stumbled over themselves to report this belly-busting burger. Stories with pictures of the plump burger appeared in USA Today, the Huffington Post and major daily newspapers.

The anchor team on NBC's Today show did a segment where four cast members talked about, then took a sloppy bite from the burger, which the PR team from Carl's Jr. just happened to provide. The value of this kind of exposure is, let's just say, worth a whole lot more than the $5.79 price tag for the Thickburger.

Anyone who has seen a Carl's Jr. TV ad knows they are outrageous-bordering-on-gross. People chomp into a large burger, dripping sauce all over themselves. The Thickburger earned media campaign employs the same outrageousness. That's what makes it "news."

Come out with a hamburger with bacon and you will get a yawn from news editors and producers. Slap on a hot dog and there is instant interest. The hot dog may taste sort of like bacon, but it's a hot dog. You know, at barbecues, you get a choice between a hamburger and a hot dog. Now, you don't have to choose.

You also don't have to worry about where on your plate to juggle your potato chips. They are in the bun, too.

When many fast food restaurants are wrestling with how to offer healthier fare, Carl's Jr. goes for the jugular – or a coronary artery. There is no hemming and hawing about calories or fat. Carl's Jr. puts it out there proudly, not defensively. And the chain calls the Thickburger "all American."

The outrageous doesn't always work for brands or idea merchants that initiate earned media campaigns. The lesson isn't about outrage; it's about breaking through the noise barrier with something that is different, catchy or unexpected. It's also about "news" that can have an extended life through social media, the stuff people read and share.

The unusual and the outrageous can earn media you don't have to pay for from your advertising budget. But don't avoid earned media just because your product, service or idea isn't unusual or outrageous. You can create an appealing news hook by finding what's truly different and building your earned media pitch around it.

Matching Visuals to Your Message

Viewers expect higher quality visual images. You should demand matching your visual assets to your brand message.

Viewers expect higher quality visual images. You should demand matching your visual assets to your brand message.

Most people by now have gotten the picture that visual communications are effective. But adding visual pop to actual communications still for many remains a mystery.

Anna Guerrero, in a blog posted by ragan.com, offers some practical tips on how to lure viewers. Guerrero's core point is that just adding visual content doesn't do the trick. You need quality visual assets that tell your story better than any words can.

Her tips include using high-quality photography, website screenshots, infographics, candid images, original designs and a striking color palette – stuff that stands out and grabs the eye.

Maybe Guerrero's most profound point is the need to match your visuals with your message. To convey that your organization is full of "fun people," show a behind-the-scenes picture of your team working while doing something funny. To reduce a complex topic into something simple, create an infographic that walks the viewer through the issue in digestible chunks. To establish credibility, post a screenshot showing the original source of information that you are citing.

Visual symbols play a large part in brand recognition – and loyalty. They can be leveraged by associating them with strong, compatible visual assets that express a more specific message. The example Guerrero pointed to was the Kaleidoscope Blog on Pinterest and its distinctive, easily recognizable design.

Striking photography pulls people in, as she showed with an eye-popping picture of a woman applying bright red lipstick with a man caressing her cheek with his lips. The picture was visibly relevant to the Facebook post headline and the content: "8 Reason to Fall in Love with the Girl Who Rocks Red Lipstick." The image, Guerrero notes, wasn't the result of an expensive photo shoot; it was a piece of stock photography.

Successful visual communications usually flow from information design processes that give equal weight at the start to all assets. Information designers don't make words look pretty or discard words in favor of snazzy pictures. They choose the best combination that tells the story in a way the intended audience will notice.

It is true that effective communications in the digital age almost always include visual assets. Viewers have come to expect it. With so many people sending pictures from smartphones and designing personalized greeting cards on their tablets, their expectations have risen for more presentational value. And they just don't want pictures; they want good pictures.

Good pictures don't always mean the same thing across communication channels. Quirky works on Instagram and elegance pays dividends on Pinterest. That is a direct reflection of the dominant demographics that use each platform. What you post on Facebook is different than what you post on your website or as a blog illustration.

Visual imagery should be part of your communications toolkit. More important, it must be part of your brand narrative.

Too Big to Succeed

McDonald's is proving the marketing maxim that you can too big to succeed by trying to be everything to everybody instead of identifying and satisfying the needs of your core customers.

McDonald's is proving the marketing maxim that you can too big to succeed by trying to be everything to everybody instead of identifying and satisfying the needs of your core customers.

Large banks may be too large to fail, but consumer-facing companies may find themselves too big to succeed. Take McDonald's, for example.

The fast-food industry pioneer has hit a brick wall, with slipping sales, declining profits and growing questions about its future direction. Under new leadership, McDonald's is trying to regain its footing with the goal of being "modern" and "progressive." But the nagging question remains: Who does McDonald's want to show up at its counter and how do they get them there?

That's the quandary of being big. It's hard to be everything to everybody.

McDonald's quandary should be a cautionary tale for all businesses. Growth of your brand is not synonymous with growing bigger. Trying to get big is not a sure-proof way to succeed and may actually be the road to eventual ruin.

Clearly, McDonald's is one of the most valuable brands and franchises in the world. It owns that position in large part because it created the fast food category with a simple menu, quick service and low prices. When you went to the Golden Arches, you didn't expect great cuisine. It was burgers, fries and a shake on the go, for cheap.

Lifestyles and tastes have changed. New competitors have cropped up, creating new fast-food subcategories such as fast casual. Simple, quick and low-priced can still be a winning strategy, but maybe not for a goliath like McDonald's that is trying to serve other tastes at the same time.

Brands are built by claiming their own space in customer's heads  and then fighting to retain that space. Volvo builds cars with "safety" in large letters and "style" in smaller letters. BMW produces the ultimate driving machine. Once the symbol of luxury, Cadillac now searches for its customer identity.

Brand-building involves a relentless focus on the qualities customers expect from you. If how you are viewed by customers becomes blurry, then it becomes harder for you to focus. You may still be growing, but that growth could be misleading. You could growing too big to succeed.

Tips for Using Social Media to Pitch Media

These guidelines will help you successfully connect your pitch with reporters using social media.

These guidelines will help you successfully connect your pitch with reporters using social media.

With the current realities of newsrooms, it’s smart to look for alternative ways to pitch story ideas using social media. Before you send that pitch, make sure to follow a few guidelines. 

Nicole Fallon, writing for Ragan.com, says there is an art to pitching journalists on social media. An inappropriate pitch or using the wrong social network can do more harm than good. 
“Every social media site is different and has its own set of unspoken rules and guidelines for using it,” says Fallon.

LinkedIn is almost always a safe bet for any sort of professional outreach, but not everyone checks the site regularly. Most reporters use Twitter professionally, so take a look at the type of content they post to get a sense of if this is an appropriate place to pitch. Use of Facebook can vary from person to person. Some have a large number of friends and contacts, while others see Facebook as a more private space. If you’re friends, review the reporter’s posts to determine how a particular reporter is using the site. Instagram can be more personal as well, so use it as a way to build a relationship with a reporter, but not to pitch them directly.

Always try to start by building a relationship with a reporter. A pitch is not a good way to say hello. A good relationship with a reporter is almost always going to make your media pitches more successful. Social media can be a great way to build a relationship with a reporter. 

“A great way to start is by sharing or commenting on journalists' articles that are relevant to your clients' expertise,” says Fallon. “If you tag them, they'll most likely see it, and if you haven't worked together before, this will put you on their radar.” 

Rather than an outright pitch, Fallon recommends using social media to gauge interest. Keep your messages short and direct. You can always send more details later. 

If the reporter is interested, Fallon recommends moving the pitch to email. It’s really the best way to send more detailed information. If the reporter is expecting your email, he or she will be more likely to respond. 

Be careful about sending attachments immediately. These can often get caught in spam filters or the large file size can cause emails to bounce. Let the reporter know what types of materials you have to send to them and ask about the best way to send them. Sometimes it’s downloadable files online, while others prefer services such as Dropbox. Sometimes email is fine depending on their system. Delaying attachments can make sure your message gets to its intended target. 

Pitching via social media is not always the best – or even a good – idea. Make sure you’ve done your homework before hitting the send button.
 

Tuning Content for Your Audience's Ear

Content marketing is more than blasting content through a megaphone. It involves finding out what your audience wants and giving it to them.

Content marketing is more than blasting content through a megaphone. It involves finding out what your audience wants and giving it to them.

The secret to content marketing lies in knowing your audience, not someone's formula for success.

Neil Patel, writing for ragan.com, says too many content marketing initiatives go down in flames because they follow so-called best practices rather than the clues provided from target viewers.

"Take every best practice with a grain of salt. Do the one thing that matters: Know your audience," Patel urges. "Your form, method, frequency, length, style, approach, tone, structure, images should depend on what's best for your audience."

Content marketers are discovering what ad agencies have discovered – connecting with audiences requires more than shouting through a megaphone. Writing a blog that no one reads is just as much of a misfire as producing an ad that no one believes.

The "best practices" that Patel spears aren't necessarily bad practices to adopt. Snappy headlines, brisk copy, blogs, infographics all can be effective tools. But that's what they are – tools, not ends.

One clue to what your viewers are looking for is what they click on in your website. Typically, the most clicks are for team biographies and case studies. That suggests content centered on your team members and stories about your work.

Another way to ferret out what your viewers want is to ask them. Periodic surveys can combine a little fun with serious questions. This might lead to producing content, such as an informative Ebook, that responds to interests or needs that are expressed.

Tuning into online conversations is yet another way to hear what is on the minds of your audience. Creating content that follows – or bucks – trends could be a great way to capture attention.

One constant in content marketing that shouldn't be forgotten is the need to provide something useful. Usefulness could mean content that is entertaining, informative, relevant or eye-opening.

Another content marketing maxim is letting the form follow the function. Your content must be created, packaged and delivered so it arrives at the doorstep of your audience, whether that doorstep is a desktop, tablet or mailbox.

Many content marketing best practices have value and reflect track records of success. But Patel is right – they aren't where you start in designing an effective content marketing campaign. The place you start are the persons you want the message to end with – your audience.

Making Every Encounter Count

Make every customer encounter important by creating a magical moment. 

Make every customer encounter important by creating a magical moment. 

The Internet has changed the way people shop. It also has changed the way brands must interact with shoppers, treating each touchpoint with a consumer as a potentially magical moment.

Because it is easy to flit from one website to another, each encounter must count, says Scott Davis, director of insights and strategy at Sincerely Truman, a Portland creative agency. "The encounter is everything," Davis explains. "Catch people off guard and make them smile. Capture their heart, if only for a moment."

Of course, it wouldn't hurt if your encounter also involved transmitting relevant information, useful tips or to-die-for offers.

Davis makes a good point that every encounter is important, so brands must consider every social media post, their website design and marketing content that inspires shoppers to pause and exposes them to what is uniquely your brand story.

Paid and earned media have always been aimed at creating impressions. Davis says a quality impression is more valuable than a number of so-so impressions. "Every touchpoint must be a powerful standalone encounter."

Thinking differently about consumer interactions means thinking differently about content. In mass outreach, the goal is to grab eyeballs. What Davis recommends requires capturing eyeballs.

There is so much advertising on TV, in print and via the Web that it takes more than flash to create a durable impression, let alone to cause someone to poke a little deeper into the content.

Developing this kind of mix of creative content demands solid research to understand consumer motivations and trusted information sources. Content packaging must be clever, but also a quick route to the core information being offered. The actual content must instantly resonate with the intended audience by offering something of value that uniquely reflects your brand.

This is a tall order for every touchpoint, but Davis' admonition suggests the reward is worth the effort. "You must be able to bank on every encounter creating value." he says. Because in the crowded world of the Internet, you never know when the next encounter might be.