Archive for May, 2008

Donuts and the power and peril of social media

Was a time when news, issues, disputes, trends and the like bubbled and percolated before gaining momentum. The world was a seemingly quieter, albeit less informed place. The printing press started us down the path. Skip ahead to Marshall McLuhan and his prognostications about the “global village.” Then Vinton Cerf gives McLuhan’s revolutionary musings a technological boost and voila: paradigm shift (apologies!). How people express themselves and learn is exponentially accelerated.

Which is why Dunkin Donuts and Tim Hortons have been on the online firing line in recent weeks.

Suggestive Starbucks?

A Dunkin Donuts ad campaign featuring celebrity cook/talk show host Rachel Ray wouldn’t appear to be terrorism related. But the speed and reach of social media and can quickly spark enough momentum to influence a company to yank a multi-million-dollar campaign. The charge was led by right-wing pundit and blogger Michelle Malkin, who also supports a group railing against Starbucks for promoting family-friendliness with suggestive photos on their new coffee cups (ed. note: can a mermaid really spread her legs?!)

Society for a Free Timbit!

Coffee and donut shops were taking it on the chin in Canada before that. Tim Horton’s ran afoul when one its overzealous managers fired a part-time employee for giving a 15-cent Timbit (small donut) for free to a child of a regular customer. The blogosphere lit up with complaints and, coincidentally or not, the woman was rehired. Even the re-hiring story posted on Yahoo! Canada recorded thousands more comments.

Advocacy groups for whatever cause — charitable, political, disruptive, you name it — can quickly gain momentum online. Using all the tools of the trade — blogs, discussion forums, wikis — and spreading their gospel through feeds, trackbacks and the like, an otherwise innocuous issue or comment can take on a life of its own.

For organizations or companies, that has ominous implications. Customer complaints or product defects are immediately and widely communicated. That means companies must be monitoring and reacting to online communications before they reach a critical mass.

Consider the opportunities:

  1. Build up some goodwill (that you may need to call upon later) by engaging in ongoing conversations with customers now.
  2. The Internet is one giant focus group. Reach out to customers with new ideas or changes that might help confirm or contradict assumptions in advance of costly product or marketing development.
  3. Just as bad news can spread like wildfire, so can your promotion. Buzz building happens faster and more broadly than ever before. Use it to be pro-active. Or else others may fill the vacuum.

Is RIM scared of losing employees?

Is success going to RIM’s head? I invited a former colleage who now works there join my LinkedIn network. But apparently LinkedIn is now verboten at RIM. When she tried to link to me, this is what popped up:

Access to this site is restricted

Restricted Access Note – All RIM Employees

RIM places a high value on security, safety and intellectual property. All RIM employees share in the goal of safeguarding our assets and keeping the best interests of RIM in mind.

The use of internet access is governed by the Acceptable Use of RIM Systems and Data Directive, as well as the Employee-Consultant Confidentiality and Intellectual Property Agreement, which is included in the RIM Business Standards and Principles. The RIM Business Standards and Principles must be adhered to at all times.

A quick check of LinkedIn found that hundreds of RIM employees have posted profiles there. I told her she was being singled her out because RIM doesn’t want recruiters poaching her. 😉

Seems a bit artificial to restrict access to LinkedIn. RIM’s success and employee satisfaction should naturally be enough to retain talent. If you have to put fences up, what does that say?

I guess announcing blockbuster partnerships and continuing stock price strength isn’t enough for the co-CEOs. Now they want to hoard all the good people to themselves…

Marketing smarts or dangerous bedfellows?

There was a time when media organizations reveled in their independence. Slowly, consolidation in the media industry meant cross pollination and media organizations taking a more corporate-like approach to their business and marketing. That has morphed into outright aggressive partnerships with a corporate world that media owners once acted largely as watchdog over.

Today’s announcement of the Globe & Mail’s sponsorship of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver is the latest media partnership announcement (CanWest had already jumped on board, with reviews from its own papers…).

Olympic 2010 logo

Media, which at times mocked and belittled the corporate marketing speak, are now part of the mix, “extending brands” and “leveraging partnerships” to “reach more stakeholders.”

If the Globe is ponying up money to back the Olympics, can it remain editorially independent? Publisher Philip Crawley says so. Editorial independence is not necessarily demonstrated by what and how events and situations are covered. It’s what is not covered that reveals the invisible hand of the suits behind the editors. No, it’s not commonplace, but yes, it’s more subtly recognized within media circles than the general public.

From VANOC’s perspective, media partnerships are a great marketing move that will almost guarantee them extensive coverage and arguably minimize any sustained negative coverage. As Mr. Corleone once said: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Better still, partner with them so they have a financial interest.

Last rites, or rebirth, of newspapers?

Circulation is down. Ad revenues are down. Ad Age is running a special series on the U.S. industry entitled Newspaper Deathwatch in which one media analyst says: “When an offline reader of a paper dies, he or she is not being replaced by a new reader.” It doesn’t look good for the ink-stained fourth estate.

The Internet has been a threat (mostly) and opportunity for newspapers. Unfortunately, most organizations thought slapping up an online version of their printed edition constituted a successful play in “new media.” Woops. Others have seen the light sooner. Their online presence goes beyond historical one-way communication (Here’s the news: now read it and go away until tomorrow…) to employ an architecture, forums and content that attract eyeballs, encourages participation and builds loyalty.

First, more newspapers are outfitting staff with video and digital cameras in addition to notepads. Capturing interviews or events, in their entirety, has little to no space limitations online compared to the real estate limitations of the printed page. Video content is the future, plain and simple. Plus, it can be great entertainment (Chef Ramsay, the toast is on fire!).

Second, online editions are springboards for more detailed information or directly to the source. Readers may link somewhere else, but they’ll keep coming back because you give them access and direction to richer content.

And third, some newspapers are taking the leap into the user-generated content (UGC) world. It’s a huge leap of faith: at its core, UGC is the anti-thesis of newspapers’ traditional role as the authoritative voice of its particular community. It’s one thing to allow comments at the end of online stories. It’s another to allow the public to generate those stories and other content on your site.

A few papers are walking this talk, in part because UGC supplements shrinking newsroom resources (yes, UCG is unpaid and arguably impacts paid staffing levels, but that’s another blog…). In Canada, the Montreal Gazette has opened up the kimono with West Island Plus, featuring reader-generated stories, photos and local event postings alongside Gazette staff-generated content. Providing those forums and content complements the expertise and content provided trained journalists (i.e. posting a local hockey team tryout time isn’t the same as investigating the suspiciously high mortality rate among seniors at a nursing home). The Chicago Tribune’s Triblocal and Washington Post’s Loudounextra are also making this play to engage (keep!) readers. It gets readers to participate. The next step is to see newspapers creating mini social networks that allow readers to create their own conversations unfettered. Should the city be using taxpayers’ money to build that sports stadium? What can we do to revive downtown? How do we get more kids involved in volunteer work?

Ultimately, keeping readers is about keeping ad revenue (a newspaper sales rep once opined that I and my fellow journos just filled in the gray space around his ads). Keeping revenue keeps the lights on. Will building stronger online capabilities, applications and ultimately loyal eyeballs attract enough people to immediately offset the shrinking print ad revenue? No. But if newspapers are going to survive and thrive, it will make the transition quicker and less painful.

Can newspapers evolve quickly enough? If not, how long before their eulogy?