Blog Archives

Bowling for Business: Forget the Fine Print

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on November 22, 2010 and in the Biz Press on November 24, 2010.

When writing promotional copy for your product or service, less is more.

When I was in sixth grade, Mr. Khouri called my parents for a conference because, although I was excelling in Honors’ English, I was failing math. Since he wrote math problems on the chalkboard, he and my mother and father decided the solution was a giant pair of gold-rimmed aviator eyeglasses that made me look like John Denver. Not a fan of that particular fashion statement, I often “forgot” to wear my glasses or “accidentally” dropped them behind the back tires of our Pinto or “absentmindedly” flushed them down the toilet.

Unfortunately, there was a seemingly endless supply of hideous replacement frames at LensCrafters, which arrived in rapid succession…each pair unbelievably more hideous than its predecessor. This pattern continued until I finally earned enough baby-sitting money to buy contact lenses.

The horror of it all is probably why I refuse to acknowledge my increasing need for reading glasses. For months, I have been complaining to my family that every food manufacturer, magazine publisher and pharmaceutical company has recently, inexplicably reduced the size of the printing on their products.

Unwilling to consider that the problem might lie with me, I decided the logical thing to do was to start ignoring instructions. After all, at my age, I already know how to lather, rinse and repeat without having to read it on the bottle. Turns out, I am not alone.

With so many things competing for our time and attention, most of us are too busy to breathe. Rather than enjoying the luxury of leisurely pouring over every detail in each article that lands in our email inbox, we are lucky if we have time to skim headlines.

But, ironically, when it comes to creating content for others to read, most business professionals write website content and brochure copy as if their readers have nothing but time. So, if you have something you want to say to current and prospective clients, customers, guests, diners or donors, eliminate the fine print.

For Free—

When money is tight, you might be forced to do your own marketing. If this is the case, be brief. Without benefit of a professional writer or editor, and since you’ll be writing about something with which you are intimately acquainted, you will probably be prone to ramble. So here are a few words of advice:

  • Write whatever you want in a stream-of-consciousness style. Don’t even worry about adding punctuation or breaking your thoughts into paragraphs. Just get it all on paper.
  • Tear up what you wrote. That’s right. Toss it. Don’t worry. You know the material. Creating a disposable first draft will help you stay on track with your second.
  • After you finish writing your second draft, reduce it by at least 50%.
  • Then, get a second opinion from someone outside of your industry, who can alert you if you unwittingly used insider terminology.
  • Use plenty of headlines, sub-headings and bold print to divide copy. Nothing turns off readers more than an endless sea of words.

On a Limited Budget—

Hire a freelance writer. If you are preparing a newspaper advertisement, find someone who specializes in writing punchy ad copy. If you are producing a corporate brochure, commission a professional who specializes in formal business writing. Few writers excel at all styles. And the benefit of using contracted professionals is your ability to hand-pick the right people for every project.

The Sky’s the Limit—

Hire someone to create a campaign centered on a very clear message. The more you try to say, the more you will dilute your message. Take a cue from these successful ad campaigns, and associated short-slogans:

  • Nike: Just do it.
  • Mountain Dew: Do the Dew.
  • Kay Jewelers: Every kiss begins with Kay.
  • Burger King: Have it your way.
  • KFC: Finger-lickin’ good
  • Taco Bell: Think outside the bun.
  • Bounty: The quicker thicker picker-upper
  • Subway: Eat fresh
  • BMW: The ultimate driving machine
  • Avis: We try harder
  • AT&T: Reach out and touch someone
  • Visa: It’s everywhere you want to be
  • Skittles: Taste the rainbow
  • Yellow Pages: Let your fingers do the walking
  • Miller Beer: It’s Miller time.
  • Home Depot: You can do it. We can help.

And, my personal favorite—LensCrafters: Eyes love LensCrafters. (Hey, I never said a slogan had to be true in order to succeed.)

Until next time, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: The Pay it Forward Proposition

It pays to pay it forward.

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on November 8, 2010 and in the Biz Press on November 10, 2010.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more depressing movie than Pay it Forward.

Spoiler Alert: Although the premise of doing things for the sole purpose of making the world a better place to live is one I support, I wish the screenwriters would have framed the story in something other than the murder of a 11-year-old cherubic everyman played by Haley Joel Osment when he was still adorable (before his voice changed).

With that said, paying it forward is worthwhile not only in Hollywood but also in the real world…especially in business. The general idea is to selflessly give to three people without expecting anything in return. Then, the three people you help should do the same until the impact is felt in large scale. It’s a small but revolutionary idea. And I can’t think of a better time than the holidays to give it a try.

I propose you use whatever line of work you are in to pay it forward in your own little corner of the world. If you take the time to open your eyes, you’ll discover that opportunities abound. And they come at several different price-points:

For Free

One of the services we offer at Mountain Marketing Group is ghost-writing for social media accounts such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Our goal is to build a foundation and then teach our clients how to build on it by maintaining the accounts on their own. Although many choose to retain us in lieu of riding solo, most enjoy the process of learning how to provide industry-specific, valuable content to the folks in their target market.

But we usually have to repeat our social media strategy numerous times before it actually starts to sink in. Experts in my field agree the ultimate goal of social media is to contribute and engage instead of directly selling. But providing something for nothing is counter-intuitive to savvy business professionals who generally measure success by terms like ROI and “the bottom line.”

Like it or not, we are living in a brand new world, where we can no longer pretend we have cornered the market on anything! The Information Superhighway has made it necessary to honestly represent your offerings. But don’t worry; sharing information will not make you irrelevant. On the contrary; you will emerge as a leader in your field. For example:

  • If you sell soap, write blogs about secret ingredients and tools of the trade. Don’t worry; you won’t reveal anything that isn’t already posted online.
  • If you teach Latin, tweet key phrases and uses for the dead language.
  • If you make blankets, provide Facebook status updates when fleece and flannel go on sale.

According to a September 2010 Study by Pew Research, 54% of people conduct online research before buying anything…regardless of whether they end up making the actual purchase in the real world or in Cyberspace. So providing information to fuel their inquiries is a great way for you to pay it forward.

On a Limited Budget

Use some of your profits to fund a charitable organization. While I can’t show you a ledger to prove the value in contributing outside of your own firm, I can personally testify to the benefits (both personal and financial) of paying it forward by giving. Since we are near year’s end, perhaps the idea of donating is a tad more attractive now than at other times? Whatever it takes, go with it. Put your money where your mouth is.

The Sky’s the Limit

Sponsor a charitable event. Since sponsorship usually comes with PR-related perks like corporate attribution and public acknowledgment, some may argue this is not a true “pay it forward” activity. But I maintain you are paying it forward whenever someone else is the beneficiary of your benevolence. So select any organization that makes sense to you.

Call the executive director to set up a meeting so you can determine the needs and availability of the organization. Now more than ever, non-profit groups are in need of folks to pay it forward. According to SiloBreaker, due to the recession, donations to our country’s 400 largest charities declined this year by 11%. And that figure is even more depressing than fictionalized homicide.

Until next time, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: Miscommunication Situation

Communication is critical in all forms of advertising.

Make sure you network the right way in the right place.

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on October 25, 2010 and in the Biz Press on October 27, 2010.

While saving money to return to college my sophomore year, I did a short stint as an international flight attendant with a little-known charter airline called Arrow Airways. I was delighted to work one particular flight from Denver, Colorado, to Gatwick, England because one of my fellow crew members was a hunky Italian named Alberto.

When we landed, I quickly accepted his invitation to join him for dinner. Although his accent was thick, I was sure he said he would be taking me to an Italian restaurant called Apple Luigi’s. So imagine my surprise when we arrived at our destination in downtown London, which was not a fine Italian eatery called Apple Luigi’s but a gay men’s club called Harpoon Louie’s.

Why would I share this humiliating story? Because the lessons I learned apply to successful networking for business:

  1. Shut up and Listen.
  2. Kill the Agenda.
  3. Check your Six.

Shut Up and Listen

Instead of just waiting for your turn to talk, pay attention when you are chatting with someone. If you practice active listening, you will stand out because most people approach networking events with mouths open and ears shut. If I had spent more time listening to Alberto instead of trying to impress him with flirty banter, I might have ascertained that he was not a viable romantic prospect.

More recently, I participated in a speed-networking event where organizers asked participants to rate fellow networkers. The top three had this in common: they listened more than they spoke. If you want people to think highly of you, listen to them.

Kill the Agenda

Entrepreneurs often have “Type A” personalities who like to manage everything, often to their own peril. The reason I was surprised by Alberto’s revelation is because I came to the party with my own romantic agenda. But even though my time at Harpoon Louie’s isn’t what I had expected, I ended up meeting lots of interesting people. So, even though I had to find my own ride back to the hotel, the evening wasn’t a total waste.

Try to make the best of your circumstances because you never know what might unfold. Buckminster Fuller called this phenomenon the Processional Effect. As a Christian, I call it the Sovereignty of God. Whatever your belief system, try to let things happen naturally instead of trying to control the world. You might be surprised to make a friend, land a new client or learn something new.

Check your Six

Make sure you’re in the right place. Although you should go with the flow no matter where you end up, try to start off somewhere that makes sense. Before selecting networking groups to join and events to attend, figure out if regular attendees fall into your target market. Since I was interested in meeting someone I could date, Harpoon Louie’s was not an ideal location.

The good news is you don’t have to learn these lessons the hard way. Take a tip from me and network for maximum results on any budget:

For Free—

When it comes to finding places to network, think outside the box. Networking opportunities don’t occur only at official mixers that are labeled “Networking Event.” You can meet potential clients, customers and associates literally anywhere and everywhere…in the real world as well as Cyberspace.

For those who regularly read my columns, please allow me to repeat myself. The most effective way to network for free is online. Join and maintain social media accounts like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. And, above all else, remember to be the same person you are online as you are in the real world.

On a Limited Budget—

In this troubled business economy, when time and money are often in short supply, carefully select which networking groups to join. Instead of spreading yourself too thin by signing up for several organizations, start small. Join one group and take a leadership role. Arrive early and stay late. Volunteer to help set up and clean up so people see you as an active member.

The Sky’s the Limit—

If the funds are available, sponsor your own networking event. This will position you as a leader in the business community and enable you to hand-pick attendees from your own target market. And you can host the event wherever you want…from Apple Luigi’s to Harpoon Louie’s.

Until next time, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: Set Yourself Aside

Consider your target market's perspective.

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on August 30, 2010 and on the Business Press on September 1, 2010 and the Press Enterprise on September 4, 2010.

It was a bonehead move for my counselors at Summer Fun Day Camp to take a van full of impressionable seven and eight-year-old kids to see the 1971 Vincent Price horror movie, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Filling my nightmares for years, the film featured a disfigured physician methodically killing the surgeons who had failed to save his wife following a car accident.

One scene in particular sent me repeatedly running to my parents’ room in tears. Dr. Phibes juiced Brussels sprouts and drilled a hole through the ceiling above his victim’s bed so he could pour liquefied vegetables all over her body. Then, he sent a swarm of hungry locusts to crawl down a tube, where they devoured her entire body.

I recently purchased the movie so I could face my fears some 40 years later. Instead of a hideously scary, realistic portrait of terror, as I had recalled, my second viewing revealed a hokey, campy farce. The Brussels sprout scene, in particular, is absurd. The locusts ate all but a cheesy plastic skeleton and her entire head of hair. It was all so preposterous that, as an adult, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

It all boils down to perception. Teenage counselors probably didn’t realize the movie choice would freak out their campers. To select more suitable fare, they should have looked at the field trip from our perspective. This is a concept I share with clients, who often choose advertising campaigns based on their own opinions and experiences instead of the needs, ideas and prejudices shared by potential clients and/or donors.

“I like this kind of advertising. So I’m sure my clients will like it, too,” explained one Mountain Marketing Group client.

“That’s fine,” I told him. “But let me ask you something. If you didn’t own the company, would you be in your own target market? Is this a product that you would buy?”

“Well, I have an iPod.”

“Yes. You have an iPod. But is your best customer a middle-aged white male who will buy one or two sets of headphones in his lifetime, or is it someone else?”

“I’m not selling to the end consumer. I’m selling to wholesalers who buy in bulk. And most of the buyers are girls in their 20s and 30s.”

It was then that he had his aha moment, realizing that the methods that persuade him may not be the same as strategies designed specifically to reach potential customers in his target market. A typical entrepreneur, intimately involved in every step of the business, from conceptualization to manufacturing to marketing, Rick found it difficult to set aside his own frame of reference. But once he agreed to do so, we were able to launch an effective social media campaign that catered to his customers instead of to him. And you can do it, too.

For Free—

To gain fresh perspective, ask for outside input. You can do this even if you run a one-man (or one-woman) show. Just make sure you ask the opinions of people who fit your Ideal Client Profile (ICP).

In The E-myth Revisited, Michael Gerber says business owners are often too close to their own enterprises to accurately identify the best overall picture of their own ideal clients. So make sure you ask around. It might take some detective work. And bear in mind that it’s entirely possible your current customer list does not yet include your ideal client.

On a Limited Budget—

When funds are tight, take advantage of books on tape, DVDs and webinars, which provide ready access to the best business and marketing minds in the world. Here are a few authors I recommend:

Ken Blanchard: The One-Minute Entrepreneur

Seth Godin: Free Prize Inside

Guy Kawasaki: The Art of the Start

The Sky’s the Limit—

With effective market research, you can determine the need for your service, a product’s likelihood to sell, target-market demographics, and desirable storefront locations. There are numerous ways to uncover this information—from online research to focus groups to counting customers. When money is no object, the most effective method for determining and catering to your ideal client is to hire a market research firm to compile data and prepare a report.

Here are a few options:

Market Research.com claims they have the best research offerings and expertise to make sure you get the right report every time. They do.

Vizu offers a full suite of customer-focused online market research survey solutions.

Polldaddy—software for data collection, which is more affordable than hiring a market research firm to handle everything for you. Polldaddy gives you the ability to collect data about virtually everything, from how to promote your product or service to evaluating age-appropriate entertainment options for skittish seven-year-old campers.

Until next time, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: How to Succeed in Business by Really Trying

Why networking is a "no-brainer."

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on September 13, 2010 and in the Biz Press on September 15, 2010.

At 18, I didn’t understand the subtleties of the musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. So I unsuccessfully lobbied our director to produce the far more popular and ever racier show, Grease. As a senior in high school, I related more to the naïve, love-struck Sandy than to the part I begrudgingly landed… matronly secretary Miss Jones. Ironically, I now realize I should have taken notes from my role.

In the climatic show-stopping scene, Brotherhood of Man, lead characters J. Pierrepont Finch and Miss Jones sing about the common business practice of networking by joining groups like the Elks and Shriners. If “How to Succeed” were written today, the lyrics would likely also include references to social networking websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

In the two and a half years that I have owned my own advertising agency, I’ve learned one indisputable fact: If you want to succeed in business, YOU HAVE TO TRY. My take on the best use of your time and talent might come as a surprise. As a marketing professional, of course I believe in the power of a well-conceived advertising and public relations’ campaign. But, when it comes to business success, in the real world as well as cyberspace, there is no substitute for networking.

By networking, I mean more than attending mixers or posting status updates on Facebook. Real networking involves investing yourself in the lives of those around you. Only this kind of venture will produce dividends in business as well as life. But don’t take it from me. Some of the best business minds in the world agree:

Jeffrey Gitomer:

How important is networking? If you’re trying to be successful, it’s the difference between mediocre and big.

Dale Carnegie:

You can be more successful in two months by becoming really interested in other people’s success than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in your own success.

Keith Ferrazzi:

You don’t just network when you need it. You don’t network just to get something from someone. The goal is not to get from others. It is to give.

Dr. Ivan Misner:

Networking minus follow-through equals a waste of time.

If you are ready to raise the stakes with your business—to really try to succeed—get started networking today. Here are a few budget-friendly ideas to get you started creating and contributing to communities, in the real world and online.

For Free—

Check out Free Networking International, which provides information about networking opportunities across the globe. But this organization heavily promotes a $40 course to teach you how to network. So you might be better off heading to the park and striking up a conversation with strangers.

Though some have tried charging for access to community websites in Cyberspace, the best the Internet has to offer is still available to everyone for free. So if budget is a concern, take advantage of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, which allow you to fan, friend and follow folks who share your interests, goals and religious or political leanings. And when you join communities, do so as a thoughtful collaborator instead of as a bombastic broadcaster.

 

On a Limited Budget—

Hire someone to establish and maintain your social networking accounts so you can use your time to attend events in the real world. Make sure you are a fixture at chamber of commerce mixers, community events and networking get-togethers. One group I recommend is BNI, which is the largest business networking organization in the world, offering members the opportunity to share ideas, contacts and business referrals on a weekly basis.

 

The Sky’s the Limit—

Don’t just attend networking events. Sponsor them. Take a cue from the Business Press, which hosts the annual Inland Empire’s Largest Mixer as a service to the local business community. This year’s effort is especially intriguing as reporters will conduct and record brief interviews with interested business men and women and provide participants with a flash drive for upload to their websites. By taking an active interest in and providing for the needs of their target market, the BP is building a network that would even make J. Pierrepont Finch and Miss Jones proud.

Until next time, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: Info on the Go

Provide info-on-the-go to potential and current cilents and customers.

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on August 16, 2010 and in the Biz Press on August 18, 2010.

After borrowing my sister-in-law’s mobile phone in 1988, I was convinced that cell phone technology would never gain much of a following. As attractive and portable as a cinder block, it came with a 42-page instruction manual that was as user-friendly as the directions for programming the clock on an early-model VCR.

I noticed a sharp contrast while hosting a garage sale last weekend. Several customers walked up and down the makeshift aisles while feverishly tapping on tiny touch screens. When I asked one girl what she was doing, she said she was checking eBay to compare prices. It’s a brave new world.

Today, well over 250 million people in the United States use cell phones on a regular basis, which puts the mobile saturation rate at 82.4 percent. I have constant and immediate access to such statistics courtesy of the Information Superhighway delivered directly to my trusty Blackberry Smartphone.

Gone are the days of painstakingly searching for answers in reference books at the local library. If you have a question, just key it into your PC, laptop or handheld device and the answer will appear within seconds. Unlike a browser such as Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox, which power keyword-based Internet searches, Q & A sites like ChaCha are designed to answer very specific questions via Internet and/or text message.

One mobile question & answer website I often reference is ChaCha. My kids use the word as a verb, as in “I cha-cha’d” this or that, which might sound strange. But so once did “googling.”

ChaCha was founded in 2006 by a disgruntled Jet Blue flight attendant who purportedly cussed out a passenger, cracked open a beer and activated the emergency slide to make his escape. When he launched ChaCha, the site joined the ranks of popular Q & A platforms such as Yahoo! Answers, WikiAnswers and Ask.com.

These sites are significant for small business and non-profit managers because they offer cost-effective vehicles for interactive target-marketing. Let me explain. If someone wants to know why bug bites itch, they can enter the question on Ask.com. Immediately, organic (unpaid) search results appear in response. Then, immediately thereafter, related, paid text advertisements show up by companies including Terminix and BedSBug.net. And relevant, colorful banner advertisements appear at right. The smartest Internet advertising strategy includes all three.

For Free—

Build SEO so your website ranks high in organic searches. The most effective way to do this is to set up and regularly post to social media websites such as a blog, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Resist the urge to use your social media sites to do direct sales. Instead, provide relevant, frequent content to your target market, so the name of your organization will appear when potential customers, clients or donors ask questions related to your field. In this way, you earn your position as a noted expert.

On a Limited Budget—

Pay for text advertisements that appear underneath natural results. The great thing about this type of marketing is that you only pay when someone clicks thru to your website. Ad rates for sponsored results are usually set by silent auction. The more competition there is for any given phrase, the higher the price. If you want to investigate this option, check out several Q & A sites, since rates vary greatly. Some sites to compare:

  • AnswerBag
  • Askville
  • LinkedIn Answers (Business-Focused)
  • Lycos
  • Minti (Parenting)
  • Point Ask
  • Trulia (Real Estate Research)
  • Yedda

The Sky’s the Limit—

Develop colorful banner ads so visitors can click-thru to your website. The term “banner” comes from the general shape for such advertisements, which is a short, wide strip that is usually placed at the top of a webpage. In his book, How to Grow Your Business on the Internet, Vince Emery says that a click-thru rate of 1 percent is normal, while 10 percent is outstanding.

Although display ads are considerably more expensive than either text-based or social media positioning to gain Search Engine Optimization, no one can argue the appeal of sharp graphics and a clever turn of phrase. But then again, Internet advertising probably won’t ever really catch on.

Until next time, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: Stop the Hype

Halt the Hype

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on March 15, 2010

Under-promise and Over-deliver

Before the advent of the Internet, cable television or PlayStation, as a five-year-old, I was over the moon with excitement about my kindergarten class’s upcoming field trip to Albertson’s. In the weeks leading up to the outing, Mrs. Dale would remind us to turn in our permission slips and then she would recount the following highlights of our impending journey:

  • We would be greeted by the store manager, who would give us an official “Albertson’s uniform.”
  • He would usher us to the back of the store, where we would be given an exclusive “behind the scenes” tour of the market.
  • Then, the produce manager would show us where the deliveries arrived and how the fruits and vegetables were processed.
  • Next, the bakery manager would take us into the magic room where all of the breads and pies were created.
  • And, finally, to cap off the exciting event…we would be given a special treat, created exclusively for us.

After what felt like several years, the morning of our field trip finally arrived. To kill time (and evidently drive the rest of the bus crazy) on the 45-minute journey, my friend and I sang an endless loop of Grandma’s Feather Bed. (Don’t ask me why we didn’t visit a grocery store nearer to our school. Even in the 1960s, there were markets on every street corner. Also, don’t ask me why we chose that particular song. Even at five, I wasn’t a huge John Denver fan.)

Unfortunately, our arrival at the store marked the end of the adventure. No one greeted us at the front door. Instead, we wandered back to the meat counter, where a gruff butcher gave us paper hats in lieu of uniforms. Mrs. Dale and the room mothers were told to occupy us by pointing out the food. Mind you; while we were easily amused in the 60s, walking up and down the aisles was hardly entertaining, much less educational. And, our exclusive “treat” was a small, stale cookie…the kind that each child gets at every bakery department in America, when accompanied by an adult.

As we rode home that afternoon, I made a silent resolution. “I’m just a kid right now. So they think I don’t matter. But, someday, I’m going to be a grown-up who shops for groceries. And I am never going to spend my money at Albertson’s.”
Somehow, despite the loss of my business, some 40 years later, Albertson’s remains a viable entity. And, looking back, I doubt any field trip could have lived up to the hype. But I learned a valuable lesson that day which has served me well in my own business. Whatever your product or service, target market or budget: under promise and over deliver.

For Free—

If you can’t do it, don’t say that you will. While this sounds like common sense, the concept sometimes evades sales reps intent on landing new clients. This is especially true of mountain folks, who are, unfortunately, notorious for saying they will start and finish projects in unrealistic timeframes. If you can’t start a project for three weeks, tell the truth. If you do what you say you will do when you say you will do it, your business will grow. And this is true regardless of the location of your company.

On a Limited Budget—

If circumstances arise which make it impossible for you to hold up your end of any business bargain, hire someone to help you out. While this might negatively impact your bottom line in the short run, in the long run, it will pay dividends where they matter most…in satisfied customers and glowing referrals.

The Sky’s the Limit—

If you can afford to promise the moon, then do it. There is nothing wrong with promoting the superior products that you provide. If you can afford to give away exclusive gifts, then, by all means, let your target market know about the perks. Just remember that if you fail to live up to the hype, you will most likely lose their business for life. Because that’s the way the stale grocery store cookie crumbles.

Until next week, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: Take my word for it.

Shout your message from the rooftops. Word of mouth works!

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on Monday, March 8, 2010.

A stray Labrador Retriever we found sitting quietly in front of the dog pound, Maggie was beautiful, loyal, intelligent and, unfortunately, quite destructive. She met me at the door when I came home from school; sat on top of her doghouse instead of inside of it, dumped over the trash cans inside and outside of our house and routinely opened the gate so our other pets would run away.

Fed up with her antics, my parents reluctantly decided to give her to my friend, Lori, and her family. Since Lori lived in the country, they explained, Maggie would be happier and less hyper. Devastated, I sobbed into my faithful companion’s shiny black coat the entire drive to Lori’s house. I’ll never forget Maggie’s sad brown eyes staring back at me when we left. I was certain she felt abandoned, forsaken and betrayed.

The weeks that followed were difficult. Usually a happy, bubbly kid, I was inconsolable, moping around as if I had lost my best friend. So the day my dad drove by Cherrylynn Elementary School during my lunch break, with Maggie in tow, remains one of the highlights of my life. It also marked the first and only time I got into trouble and had to stay after school.

When lunch was over and we went back to our classrooms, I was too excited to contain myself. Regardless of my classmates’ interest or lack thereof, I told everyone the news that Maggie was back in my life. Mrs. Tomasini repeatedly warned me to be quiet. But I was, literally, incapable of biting my tongue.

As punishment, I had to write “I will not speak out in class” 100 times on the chalkboard. Not exactly scared straight, if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Sometimes, news is just too great not to share. And that is the essence of word of mouth marketing.

Word of Mouth is defined by Wikipedia as the passing of information from person to person. Originally the term referred specifically to oral communication (literally words from the mouth), but now includes any type of human communication, such as face to face, telephone, email and text messaging.

Any time you form an opinion and share it using your mouth to speak or fingers to type, you are engaging in Word of Mouth. Where you share the information determines how many people hear what you have to say and whether or not it is passed on to others. Until now, my story about Maggie was heard only by a small group of third graders at an Englewood, Colorado elementary school. But when content catches on and travels, it’s referred to as buzz or going viral.

Among the first to successfully systemize word of mouth marketing was Trip Advisor. Founded in February 2000, the free website provides a forum where customers can write reviews and share opinions, favorable or not, with Internet users. Amazon.com and eBay were also early adopters of the practice of publicizing unbiased customer reviews.

Of course, there are inherent risks associated with allowing folks to share their opinions. People expend effort to communicate only when they are passionately driven to do so for one of two reasons—a great experience made them fans or a negative incident turned them into foes.

In the Gas Pedal book I highly recommend, Word of Mouth Marketing, author Andy Sernovitz examines how the world’s most respected and profitable companies get people to talk about their company, their causes, and their stuff through the power of word of mouth. The nice thing about this particular form of advertising is that you can implement it regardless of your marketing budget.

For Free—

Make it easy for folks to share their opinions about your products and service. To do this, first, make sure you provide excellent products and superior customer service. And then, add a public forum to your website. But don’t censor negative feedback or you’ll appear disingenuous.

On a Limited Budget—

Have your webmaster add plenty of links to “share this post,” “comment,” “subscribe,” “follow us”, “join our community,” “tell a friend,” and “share your experience.” The easier you make it for visitors to participate in your online community, the more invested they will be.

The Sky’s the Limit—

While you can’t pay for word of mouth, you can hire someone to help you publicize legitimate comments from your existing fan base. People trust people. Professional communicators know how to gather the best feedback, give full attribution and strategically position testimonials to let existing customers advertise your offering. Take my word for it.

Until next week, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: Confessions of a Professional Spinster

All effective public relations is based firmly on the truth.

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on February 28, 2010

While I was growing up, my best friend, Lori, and I used to play in the woods near her home in a small rural suburb of Denver. We would leave her house in the morning and stay out all day, trying to make it back home before dark. But sometimes, our vivid imaginations would carry us away, causing us to lose track of our play-time curfew. On such occasions, when we finally arrived at Lori’s house, we were greeted by her very unhappy mother, who had quite a set of lungs for a woman of such an advanced age. (Everyone seems old when you’re in grade school. At the time, Judy was all of 28.)

To try to ward off the lectures, Lori and I manufactured elaborate cover stories on our way back to her house. On one such occasion, we told her mom that we had been kidnapped by factory workers at the abandoned DuPont factory in Louviers. An impressive sleuth, Judy somehow saw through our tall tale and promptly called my mom to ask her to pick me up. Lori and I learned a valuable lesson that day. No matter how creative the spin, a lie is a lie.

As a public relations practitioner, I try to disassociate myself with unscrupulous folks in my field who have yet to learn the message. Popular culture portrays us in shades of gray, with television shows like Spin City and SPINdustry and movies like Thank You for Smoking and The Hoax. The prejudice can probably be traced to our predecessor P.T. Barnum who had a knack for finding and exhibiting people, animals and a range of oddities, many of which were hoaxes, such as the infamous Feejee Mermaid.

But leaders in our field know that the only way to successfully pitch anything is to make sure all promotions are based firmly on the truth. Wikipedia defines Public relations (PR) as the practice of managing communication between an organization and its publics, which gains an organization or individual exposure to their audiences using topics of public interest and news items that provide a third-party endorsement.

What sets PR pros apart is our knack at taking any given company or individual’s reputation, activities or incidents, and reinterpreting them from the Point of View (POV) of the client to the POV of the intended target market. A timely case study of this is the recent public relations’ nightmare faced by SeaWorld Orlando. Global news coverage started shortly after the attack when an animal trainer drowned after being dragged underwater by a 12,000-pound killer whale during a show called (of all things) Dine with Shamu.

Further complicating the incident is the fact that Shamu is the name generically used for the killer whales at the theme park, according to Steve Baker, president of a theme park consulting and management company called Baker Leisure Group.

Shamu is the SeaWorld icon. Shamu is SeaWorld.

So how do you convince potential park guests that Shamu won’t dine on them? I believe the order of the day for SeaWorld is honesty. Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, Inc., a management consulting firm, concurs,

The big task (for SeaWorld professionals) is to be honest with the public and the media as they conduct their forensic study on why the accident happened, because that will determine how SeaWorld is perceived in the future.

If I were on the public relations team for SeaWorld, the first order of the day would be the prompt removal of the tagline currently posted on the Dine with Shamu section of the theme park website. “It’s exclusive. Intimate. And unforgettable.” no longer seems appropriate. It will be interesting to watch the actual SeaWorld PR team in the weeks to come. No doubt they’ll be pulling out all the stops to get SeaWorld back on track. Tools at their disposal include the same ones your company or non-profit group can employ.

For Free—

Dust off your phone book and call an editor to introduce yourself. If you take time to get to know their editorial needs (without wasting their time in the process), they might give you an idea or two for potential coverage. The most important advice I can give you about press relations is to learn to be a resource instead of a pain in the neck.

And, on June 15, the Public Relations Society of America’s-Inland Empire Chapter, is hosting a free event, Speed Consulting at the Speedway, for businessmen and women in need of pro-bono PR.

On a Limited Budget—

Hire a freelancer to write a press release about a new product or event you want to promote. Then, subscribe to a free or low-cost electronic press release service such as E-Releases, I-Newswire, BusinessWire, PR Log or PR Newswire. The social media releases we post get clicked an average 215 times. Those clicks lead to valuable press coverage.

The Sky’s the Limit—

Hire an agency. Only a trained public relations professional will be able to skillfully speak on your behalf, work with the media, handle crisis communications, manage social media and oversee effective employee communication. And that’s not spin.
Until next week, I’ll be Bowling for Business.