How to tell the difference between a PR company and a publicity firm.

Most PR companies are in the publicity game.  Here’s how to tell the difference.

1. A publicity company offers media pitching as their primary service.  A PR firm helps you build relationships with key people.

2  Publicity firms think content marketing or social media are the future of public relations.  A PR company thinks that building and maintaining relationships is the future of public relations.

3. A publicity company has no idea what the other 3Ps are.  A PR company understands the role of promotion and the importance of relationships in the process.

4. A publicity company has a picture of a megaphone on their website.  A PR company doesn’t.

5. A publicity company sells on the back of their journalist relationships.  A PR company will help you build relationships with journalists and anybody else that is important to the success of your business.

6. A publicity firm talks about engagement but can’t explain what it is or how it will benefit your business.  A PR company can explain the value of you having relationships with the right people.

7. A publicity company can’t actually tell you what the return on your investment in PR will be over and above ‘awareness’.  Awareness is an outcome of publicity.  A PR company can.

For public relations advice that helps your business build and maintain relationships with the most important people to its success call Lyndon on 647-773-3677 or email lyndon@thinkdifferently.ca

Startup Storytelling: how to make people care

When was the last time you read a book where the story started with a product pitch?  How many of the books you’ve read recently, autobiographies aside were about the author?  How many of the autobiographies were of people who had still to achieve something significant in business? I raise these questions because storytelling it was a topic of discussion during a twitter chat organized by Startup Canada as part of its #startupchats series.

The chat was a rarity on social media these days – a civilized exchange of views by people with polar-opposite viewpoints.  Scrap that.  It is a rarity these days. Period. One of the participants was a long-time member of the Toronto Startup scene, Mark Evans.  Mark’s position in the chat was that product is key to good storytelling.  He wrote a blog post about his experience of the chat and asked me to write a piece about my take on the topic because we disagreed so fundamentally on the issue.

In his post, ‘For Startups, What’s More Important: Good Product or Good Story?’Mark poses the question whether it is the product or story that is more important for startups stories. He makes a case for both in his post, but I still disagree with his assessment. While the story is always more important than the product, a story that focuses on the startup, as Mark suggests, is also the wrong approach. I’d also argue that the product is irrelevant if you’re not telling the right story.

Mark makes the point that product rules because a bad product will be found out.  I agree.  But that’s one of the Ps of marketing – not part of the storytelling process [the promotion P].  Marketing doesn’t work without successfully delivering on all four [Product, Price, Place and Promotion] but starting the promotion with ‘I’ve got a good product’ without explaining why anybody should care is unlikely to win friends or influence people – let alone sell things.

When I was a child of the stories I read started with the fabled sentence, ‘once upon a time…’.  Why?  Because it is a vehicle for setting the scene.  It’s a way to provide context; to draw people in to the story. They didn’t start with a product pitch.  None of the stories I remember from my childhood started with a pitch by the author telling me how good they were are storytelling, character development, etc. and none started by telling me they were the Shakespeare of children’s books.

We all know that when we find a good story we can’t help but want to read more. We enjoy the twists and turns; the stories of good vs. bad. So what is the right story?  If it’s not product or a story about your startup, what should the theme of every good startup or small business story be?

The right story is the one that the audience wants to hear.  And, this is where most companies get it wrong.  They’re so busy pitching and telling the world how unique their product is; how they’re going to be the Uber of X, Y and Z, that they forget about the audience and, as a result, they lose them.  Nobody cares about their story.

I read, on a daily basis, supposed content marketing ‘experts’ imploring startups to tell their story.  I hear the same people telling entrepreneurs they have a voice.  But, for startups in particular, the key to telling the story your audience wants to ‘read’ is first understanding the audience.  If you understand the audience you can create story they can relate to.  

In his post, Mark talks about Dollar Shave Club and the video that is widely credited with putting them on the map, called, ‘Our Blades Are F***ing Great’.  The key to that story is the problem faced by men around the world – having to spend ridiculous amounts of money every month on razor blades.  Had their story been about their blades or the company it’s likely nobody would have cared. It’d just be a story about a cheap razor-blade. 

But because the company told a story that showed it understood the problem and positioned its solution in a fun and attention-grabbing way, the company was able to communicate how it solved the problem in a new and innovative way. They didn’t lead with their product or their startup story – they lead with a problem that their audience understood. We all know how it worked out.

So, when you’re starting to write your startup or small business’ next story forget the product pitch and the narcissistic navel-gazing and figure out what story your audience wants to be told.

Startup storytelling tips

  • Write the story your audience wants to hear – not the one you want to tell
  • Your product is useless without an understanding of the value it delivers
  • Nobody cares about your story or your product.  They care that you understand their story and your product can help them write a better one
  • Resist the urge to use storytelling as a veiled product pitch

Learn from some of the greatest corporate storytellers

Nike ‘’Take It To The Next Level

Apple ‘think different

Maserati ‘Strike

Chipotle ‘Back To The Start

Public Relations Is A Business Strategy – Not A Department

National Post Entrepreneur Rick Spence

“I thought I was sitting down with a PR specialist – but you didn’t mention it once in the last two hours!”.

Earlier today I spent two hours with a journalist that writes for one of the three main newspapers in Canada.  He’d was interested in one of the innovations that is part of my business – PR Office Hours – where startup and small business entrepreneurs can sit down with me for 15 minutes and get advice on how to use public relations to tackle a current business challenge for just $50.  They can either book in advance via my website or drop in and hope there’s a spare slot.  It’s a model I’ve borrowed from Apple with its Genius bar.

I had filled the afternoon with people that I had worked with before to ensure that the afternoon wasn’t wasted for the journalist if nobody turned up and because I didn’t want to publicize the fact that this particular session was being shadowed.  None of the participants had been promised coverage as a result, and had agreed to be there to help me demonstrate how it works. You can read his account of our afternoon together here  I explained, while I hadn’t used the words public relations everything I had talked about was absolutely public relations.  It had focused on building and maintaining relationships in order to achieve a specific outcome.  I rarely use the phrase PR because it muddied the water: PR is associated by most, including the majority of people charging customers thousands of dollars every month for the privilege when they provide publicity and promotion services.

It’s the second time this topic had been raised in the last few days.  A friend, Alan Kay, summed it up best when he said, “so what you’re saying is that public relations should be a business strategy NOT a department”.  That’s exactly what I was saying.  Building and maintaining relationships is an integral part of every business and not something that should be outsourced to a third party.  Certainly not a third party whose main purpose is to pitch journalists in the hope of securing media coverage [think about it, do you consider direct email an attempt to build a relationship with you or an irritant that usually guarantees you’ll never do business with the company sending it?!

Back to the three hours spent with my journalist shadow and, I explained, everything I had done was designed to help the entrepreneurs build the relationships they needed to achieve a specific outcome ,if none existed, or strengthen the relevant ones that did.  A failure to do this is one of the most common reasons that marketing [the art of getting somebody to take a desired action] fails.  Without strong relationships in place ‘marketing’ is effectively asking strangers to do something that  benefits your.  Often, the request is also without explaining clearly what the benefit is for them.

I’ve been told, by my peers, that my definition of public relations  – everything a business does to build and maintain relationships with the people that are most important to its success – is too literal; too old-fashioned; too specific. I’ve been told that my explanation of marketing – everything a company does to get people to take an action on your behalf… because they want to – is plain wrong.  I repeatedly have the discussion – usually with my supposed peers – that my assertion that publicity – the communication of information from an organization to as many people as possible – isn’t public relations.

But, think about it.  When we need help in our personal lives – whether to lend us a few dollars for a transit fare because we’ve left our wallets at home, or as entrepreneurs when we need help overcoming a challenge in growing our business – our first call is to somebody we have a relationship with.  Whether a friend, a parter, family member or mentor/advisor – we go to people that are the most likely to help us because we have a long-standing relationship with them.  We don’t stand on the corner of the street with a megaphone imploring strangers to help us because we know it’s an inefficient way to solve a problem.  The chances are slim and we have no way of knowing whether people have the capacity or desire to help.

And yet when it comes to our businesses we do the exact opposite. My industry tells its customers that the best way to achieve a business outcome is to stand on the street corner with a megaphone – physical or digital – shouting at everybody that passes.  Imploring them to do what we want them to do.  Worse, my peers tell entrepreneurs that they’re not equipped to do it themselves and should pay a third-party to do the shouting to implore an intermediary to pass on your message.

Public relations is about building and maintaining relationships with the people that matter most to your organization – and you need to own them.  It needs to be a business strategy that is part of the fabric of your business, not a bolt on department that you pay a third-party to do for you – especially when all you’re getting is somebody with a megaphone!

Yahoo, Yodel, Yodel House

What’s the ROI on SXSW investment?

Yahoo, Yodel, Yodel House
The Yahoo Yodel House at SXSW 2015

The amount of money spent by companies trying to capture the attention of the tens of thousands of people visiting SXSW this year will run in to many millions of dollars.  The return they are likely to get on it is questionable.  Part of the problem is that most will have set no clear goals; part is that even those that did will not have any way to measure whether or not they have been achieved, let alone quantify the value delivered as a result of their investment.

Let’s take Yahoo! as an example.  I use it because it is one of the bigger names and it had a huge presence at the event, taking over one of Austin’s premier event and live music venues [according to its website], Brazos Hall.  Other similar examples include GE, IBM and VISA.

I visited the Yahoo ‘Yodel’ House a couple of times during my trip to SXSW and they had spared no expense.  There were the standard free drinks, lavish decoration in brand colours [which was changed on a regular basis], an AV set up that most local television stations would be envious of, venue managers, security, bar staff… you get the idea.  On both occasions it was buzzing.

My question is what was the point?  What did Yahoo! get out of it?  The lounge was busy.  People had a good time. They were able to recharge their devices.  They had a few [more] free drinks. My question to them is, SO WHAT?  What’s the tangible benefit?  The return on investment?

My peers would claim that visitors were engaging with the brand. They’ll say the Yodel House created buzz; pictures were shared on Instagram; people were Meerkat-ing [sic]; tweeting; hashtagging… This is often called ’brand awareness’ or brand marketing [it might be awareness, but it’s not marketing] and that’s great, but it is also unquantifiable! It has no tangible value.

I use this not to single out Yahoo! but to illustrate a growing trend.  Companies through huge amounts of money at making on awareness but without considering whether it makes financial sense to do so.  Often there is little thought about what the long-term return will be, let alone the short-term one.

It’s a dangerous trend. Sure, companies like Yahoo! and their ilk can afford it. They have deep pockets.  Some smaller companies have VC money they can “invest”, but the majority don’t.  And, if there is no tangible value then surely the money could be better invested in other things?  Things that are likely to deliver a return. Things that are likely to support the growth of the business – not just brand awareness for its own sake.

How many people that visited the Yahoo! lounge at SXSW will have gone home and changed their default search engine from Google to Yahoo!?  I think you know the answer to that.

Startup and SmallBiz Marketing tip: understand what action you want people to take and focus your time, energy and money on achieving it.  Successful marketing begins with strong relationships built via public relations.

Meerkat has created a monster!

SXSW 2015 will be remembered as the year a monster was created. Make that many monsters.

In the week prior to the annual geek-fest in Austin two words entered common usage amongst twitter users.  The two words that should strike fear in to the heart of every social media professional, [LIVE NOW], followed by the short URL mrk.tv and the hashtag #meerkat

Meerkat, if you missed it, is a tool that allows video to be live-streamed directly in to a twitter feed.  It briefly enabled account holders to notify twitter followers when they were live streaming using the 140-character app’s social graph so that users didn’t need to create a new audience.  That changed shortly after the firm arrived at SXSW, the annual digital and interactive equivalent of spring break held in Austin, TX.

Meerkat is the perfect app for the self-publicist to broadcast every mundane moment of their uninteresting lives to the world.  People streamed everything and anything but, largely, nothing of any note.  Some have streamed pre-stream warm ups where the ‘main event’ was uninteresting and the pre-show stream was a nadir!

I’ve read, and heard, people saying that Meerkat is a game-changer for social and content marketers by allowing ‘brands’ to live stream video in their twitter feed.  But, for all the hype around Meerkat it is just another content creation and syndication tool that requires quality content and an engaged audience.  For all the hype around Meerkat these the two things that most companies struggle with most and until they fix it the app has more potential to annoy and alienate people than it has to engage them.

It’s a bit like giving a jetpack to everybody and telling them it will allow them to travel from anywhere to everywhere – unless you know how to use it it is far more of a danger than it is beneficial.

My suspicion is that, despite the hype, the appeal for twitter users will wear off quickly as audiences tire of viewing the minutia of day-to-day life.

Startup and SmallBiz PR and Marketing tip: Understand what content your audience wants and give it to them.  Don’t invest time and money creating content on every platform – focus on quality.

SXSW, Social Media, IRL

SXSW Is Social Media – IRL

As an entrepreneur and a PR ‘guy’ SXSW is an interesting experience.  2015 was my second time in Austin and as I sit in a bar on my way to the airport I wanted to share a few observations and some recommendations for other entrepreneurs considering attending next year.

I was fortunate to be part of the Canadian trade delegation this year.  As an expat Brit living in Canada it was great to be allowed to represent my adopted home.  It was also great to see what some of my co-entrepreneurs are working on across the technology, film and music industries.  Canadians have a reputation for being not tooting their horn loudly enough.  We need to fix that – there is clearly plenty to ‘toot’ about!

So, what stood out this year?

The same old buzzwords;  continued lack of substance. 

If I had a dollar for every time I heard the word engagement I’d be a very rich man.  If I had a dollar for every time it was used correctly, I would probably not have enough to pay for a coffee at the airport.  The same is true for terms like brand, authenticity, “social”.

They have become mantras for the tech, PRublicity [my term for the army of ‘PR Pros’ that are actually publicists] and marketing industries but most within the industry – let alone their customers – understand either their meaning or their significance.

There’s no longer differentiation between PR, marketing and publicity

…but there should be.  My peers have lost sight of the value of each discipline.  The majority of events were public relations [despite the fact that most would not describe them as such.  The majority of what many would call marketing was, in fact, publicity.  SXSW has become a competition from companies to see who can make the most noise. and this leads to a lot of waste – wasted cash, wasted resources and wasted opportunities.

None of these are ever  long-term strategy for business success – but for many of the small businesses and startups attending it is the fastest path to running out of money.

This year, more than ever, the background noise was louder than ever.  Being heard was ever more difficult.  SXSW is a perfect illustration of how most companies are using social media platforms – as a tool for shouting messages in the hope they are heard, rather than a opportunity to better understand their customers, identify sales opportunities and complement customer service activities.

As a result, both social and SXSW are likely to become less attractive and less effective unless attendees change the way they use them.

The conference is about the speakers, not the attendees. 

I caveat this that I didn’t attend the conference but followed as many of the sessions that I could on twitter.  From what I saw it’s the same “celebrities” saying the same, hackneyed, vanilla stuff they’ve been saying for years!  There’s little practical value in the conference panels for the attendees paying thousands of dollars for the badge – it appears to be more a vehicle for people to promote themselves, rather than adding value to attendees.

[I also realize that my chances of speaking at the event are now zero!!]

The real value is in serendipity 

Everybody says that ‘south-by’ is about the people you meet in a bar or at a party.  And, it’s true.  It’s the random meetings; the conversations; the introductions to complete strangers, by complete strangers that will be the things that have lasting value in the weeks and months after we leave Austin.
Nobody can explain what it is they do – or why anybody should care

Part of what I do is helping customers figure out how they explain what they do and the value it provides for their customers.  I help them figure out why anybody – whether a prospect, investor, analyst or journalist – would care about their product or service.  At events I take time to ask people representing the exhibitors what they do – and I’m always surprised at how few are able to do it.  Most try; the majority use long-drawn out explanations that are full of meaningless words.  Almost none can do it in a sentence or two in words my parents would understand.

Having spent thousands of dollars to exhibit they fail to clear the first hurdle.

SXSW is social media – in real life.  

I was asked to sum up SXSW by a friend who has never been.  The best description I could come up with was that it’s like social media, only in real life.  Lots of noise, some interesting conversations and occasionally you meet somebody where there is mutual business benefit.

Startup and SmallBiz PR and marketing tip: focus on finding the people that matter most to your business and building and maintaining strong relationships with them.  Social media is fun, but real-life will always deliver more business value.

This is the first of a series of post-SXSW reflection pieces.  I’d love to hear your observations: the highs and lows, and the just plain weird.

How to measure ROI on public relations

As the year draws to a close–you’re probably trying to calculate the return on your investment in public relations.

Public relations companies have long struggled to measure the value of what they do. Some cite “awareness” or “engagement” but both are meaningless based on current metrics. Part of the problem is that they’re not selling public relations; part of the problem is that they’re selling something that is reliant on so many unknown variables – there are so many things that traditional PR agencies have no control over. The other problem is that their definition of return is based on an estimated financial value of advertising, rather than the value of the product of their labors.

I read an article recently that talked about how AVE [Advertising Value Equivalent] was outdated and suggested that a better measure of publicity activities should be gAVE [Google Advertising Value Equivalency]. It might be me, but it doesn’t sound much of an evolution – you’re still measuring an estimate of advertising equivalency based on a cost per page impression and using a value defined by a publisher – Google. The problem remains that a gAVE calculation makes assumptions: the most obvious one being whether the audience is the right one for your business but others like whether customers have a need, whether they have purchasing authority or influence in the purchase decision, or that they will be motivated to enough to reach out or click a link to a website to find more information. It also relies on the assumption [often incorrectly] that the reader or website visitor will initiate a conversation.

As entrepreneurs, we’re building businesses around a set of, hopefully validated, assumptions. We know that the problem we’re solving exists and we know who our ideal customer is. Right? So, what if, rather than trying to measure the value of public relations using an abstract like advertising equivalency we measure it on something that we already has value – relationships with the people that will help us grow successful, profitable businesses such as prospects, customers, industry luminaries, purchase influencers, advocates, journalists and investors.

We subconsciously measure relationship strength in our personal lives every day. We know if we’ve annoyed or irritated our spouse or partner, or whether a friendship is strong enough to support a disagreement. Whether we can count on somebody to help us when we need it – no matter what – or whether they’ll make promises but never follow through on them.

What if we measured the strength of our professional relationships in the same way? We could measure the strength of the relationships needed to achieve commercial goals and monitor whether our behaviors strengthened or weakened them. We could identify which relationships were necessary – and the strength of each – to achieve a specific outcome.

Try something with me now. Who are the 6 – 10 people that you need to have relationships with in order to achieve your next milestone? Write them down.

How strong do you need each of those relationships to be in order for you to achieve your desired outcome? Give each of them a rating between 0 and 10 with zero being no existing relationship and 10 meaning you have a relationship with them that you could call them today to ask for their help and they’d do whatever they could to help you.

Now use the same scale to give your relationship with each of the people on the list a value using the same scale. Zero being no relationship at all and 10 being a relationship you could bet your business on. How do they compare?

Chances are that there will be gaps – and that’s OK. It is the function of PR to help strengthen relationships where you need them to be stronger–and maintain the relationships that are where you need them to be. In many cases, to build a relationship with somebody on your list, you’ll need to build relationships with other people that can provide you with credibility, testimonials, social proof and, in some cases, introductions.

The list you have will contain the most important relationships for achieving your next milestone. Revisit and update it every time your goals change to ensure that you’re PR strategy is always focused on building and maintaining relationships with the most important 6 – 10 people for achieving that specific outcome.

Measuring public relations is easy when you know what you should be measuring – it’s all about measuring relationship strength with the people that are critical to the growth and long-term success of your business. When you’re defining the measures of success you want from for your PR activity in 2015, focus on relationship strength with named individuals and ask your PR company or your own team members about how they’ll help you achieve it.

Startup and SmallBiz PR and marketing tip: be clear on what your desired commercial outcome is before you start any public relations, marketing or publicity activity – it’ll make it far easier to measure whether you have delivered it.

This post also appeared on Launchable Magazine http://www.launchablemag.com/?page=post&title=Measuring-PR-Its-All–About-Relationships-Not-Coverage

PR & marketing killed Target in Canada

Target has just announced that its expansion in to Canada will end, with the closure of 133 stores.  Why? A fundamental failure of the company’s marketing.  Target failed to understand the market and, as a result, failed to provide the products Canadian customers wanted, at the right price and failed to promote itself correctly.

I remember my first trip to a Target south of the border in the mid 1990s. It was a revelation.  Living as I did in the UK there was nothing like Target – somewhere you could go to get almost everything at incredibly competitive prices.  Having visited Target stores in the US many times since I moved to Canada in 2010 the experience in my local Canadian store was a very different experience.

Having experienced the US stores, Canadians wanted that same combination of product choice and price that they experienced there, but the company failed to replicate it successfully in Canada. This breach of customer goodwill made Canadian customers think differently about the company.  Combine this with a lack of a clear differentiator between stores like Canadian Tire and Walmart and you have all of the ingredients for failure.

That, in my opinion, is the reason for Target’s failure in Canada.

Startup and SmallBiz PR and marketing tip: business success is based on building and maintaining solid relationships with the people that matter most to achieving it.  Don’t take your customers for granted and be prepared to stick with it for the long haul. If you change the brand experience – a combination of value proposition, core values and customer experience – then you fundamentally change the relationship you have with customers.

BlackBerry Has Lost Control

Update: An unsubstantiated rumour on May 11 2015 that Apple could be interested in acquiring all, or part, of BlackBerry caused the Waterloo-based company’s stock price to skyrocket.

Yesterday I explained that BlackBerry is facing its biggest challenge yet as it looks to turn the business around: an increasing number of people, including once loyal users, appear not to care.  Shortly before the markets closed yesterday a report surfaced claiming Samsung had approached the Waterloo-based company about a takeover.  The share price rocketed before falling back in after hours trading as the approach was denied by BlackBerry.

It’s another demonstration of a company’s future [and stock price] is in the hands of others.  The fact that the only people who appear  interested in BlackBerry are investors, looking to make a quick buck on M&A rumours, rather than a long-term recovery of the business through selling products customers – it has been reported the company is having trouble winning back corporate customers] want to buy then it reinforces the point I made in my earlier post.

The company has lost control of its own destiny.  It is at the mercy of its news agenda.  It cannot control [I would argue it is unable to define a clear brand or value proposition] its own destiny. It’s the last place a company ever wants to be and it appears not to know how to regain control.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?  Tell me in the comments below.

Startup and SmallBiz PR and marketing tip: whatever you do, retain control of your brand and its perception.  When a third-party has control your business is almost certainly doomed.

BlackBerry’s Biggest Problem: Nobody Cares

I’ve been talking about what I perceive are the reasons for BlackBerry’s demise in recent years.  There’s a long list from product market fit to a failure to grasp the fundamental shifts in consumer tastes; a failure to understand what its customers wanted to abysmal marketing and PR strategies.  But BlackBerry faces its biggest problem yet.  One that no company wants to find itself in.  It is almost always fatal.

*NASDAQ stock price at time of recording was $9. 40

Startup and SmallBiz PR and marketing tip:  Stay focused on the value you deliver that nobody else can and reinforce this wherever possible. When nobody cares about your company it’s over.