Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide

Could a new social search service with a name synonymous with ‘earth pig‘ have implications for marketing and communications? I think so.

Aardvark let’s you ask questions anonymously and receive answers from individuals in your or your friends’ social networks who may have relevant expertise.  The service is opt-in, anonymous and questions can be asked and received on the Web, through Twitter, email and so on.  There’s a homepage where you set up a profile but the process takes seconds and you never have to go back.

I’ve used Aardvark over the past few weeks and it’s enabled me to tap into distributed expertise – from people several degrees of separation removed from me – quickly and easily. It works so well that I find myself using Aardvark over Google for knowledge discovery.

So what are the implications for marketing and communications? Here are some preliminary ideas:

–       Internal Communications: It’s no secret that large enterprises have a problem with knowledge transfer and it’s no secret that social networking has been suggested as a possible solution.  I think Aardvark is more realistic for connecting employees. Why? Because an Aardvark-like service could be implemented and used so easily.

o    HR managers could log new employees into the system without those employees having to take any action. Job descriptions could be used to set up areas of expertise.

o    Employees would use it because the system can be accessed from virtually any medium.

o    Older employees not comfortable with traditional social networks? That’s fine; they can use the system perfectly well through email.

o    Younger employees more comfortable with a Twitter interface or mobile app? That’s easy to implement too.

–       Customer engagement: Imagine enrolling every new customer/user in an Aardvark-like service when you close the sale.  Customers would immediately be plugged into a network of experts (other customers) with similar challenges or issues and with almost no effort on their part.  Customers could be empowered to ask questions about products as well as issues relevant to their industry, job function etc.  As the broker of the relationship vendors benefit from delivering another value-added service (at minimal cost).  There’s also the potential opportunity for valuable data mining.

–       Thought leadership and expert visibility: This is the one that’s really captured my attention. Currently Aardvark is anonymous and the system routes you to the best resource based on user profiles. What if users had the option of selecting to receive answers from identified experts affiliated with a company, product or service?  How might this work?

o    Users might opt in to direct their questions to qualified and identified experts to obtain answers that require a higher degree of credibility (medical questions for instance)

o    Vendors, of course, would benefit from having a direct channel to promote their expertise and thought leadership.

o    Taking it a step further, users could rate vendor responses. Top rated vendors on a topic would get the first crack at relevant questions, thereby incentivizing them to provide value each time.

Answer sites, social networks and the chaos that is Twitter address each of these ideas/opportunities in their own ways but somehow Aardvark, because of its filtering, its simplicity, and the fact that it eliminates the burden of creating original content for a destination site, seems much more attractive to me. What do you think?

I moved to the DC area from New York almost five years ago.  I’ve taken the Washington Metro almost daily since then. Like most who’ve been paying attention to the news I’ve been deeply saddened by the accident and the horrible loss of life on the metro earlier this week.  I’ve also been disappointed, though hardly surprised, by the actions of the metro system leading up to, and in the aftermath of the accident.

What do I mean by this?  Reports indicate that the train cars involved were overdue for service and that the NTSB had recommended – years ago – that the type of car involved in the accident be put out of serviceAfter the accident commuters expressed frustration at the Metro’s inability to update them with accurate information.  The communication issue isn’t reserved for the Metro system, according to this article in the Washington Post the mayor’s office is coming in for some criticism as well.

The problem at the heart of all this isn’t that Metro employees aren’t doing their jobs, it’s that the system doesn’t have the money, or the operating structure to conduct long term planning and replace aging equipment.

I’m convinced – and have been for some time – that the reason for this stems, in large part, from inadequate communications.

For the past five years I’ve ridden the metro because it’s safer, more cost effective and more efficient than my only other option: driving.  I’m what you might describe as a loyal customer. I have a stake in the system.

But every single day I see equipment out of order that goes unexplained or experience delays or random stops and starts that are given a perfunctory and wholly inadequate explanation. On more than one occasion, when the system does post a sign explaining maintenance, I’ve seen the end-date for the maintenance pushed back with no reason given for the obvious lack of progress. It goes without saying that there is no meaningful attempt at rider engagement.

This bothers me. Not because I’m left uniformed but because I want a metro system that doesn’t have budgetary or long term planning problems and because the system doesn’t appear to make any attempt to engage and activate me (and others) to help make that a reality.

In any endeavor, but especially those involving the general public, solutions stem from building a constituency, getting people invested in rectifying a problem, rallying them to take some sort of action.

Accomplishing this takes understanding your constituency; it involves giving them the information they need to be your best and most committed evangelists; it requires being agile and flexible enough to communicate with them on their own terms and through their preferred channels; it necessitates qualities of transparency and empathy, speed and clarity.

It takes a serious approach to listening and talking.  It takes a communicator.

The Washington Metro has established a relief fund for the victims but I’m not sure if it’s taking outside contributions.  It’s always a good idea to donate to your local Red Cross chapter, however.

Dramatic events throw a nation into turmoil. A disaffected constituency rises up and, spurred on by communications technology, quickly organizes. External forces have the power to ensure that this enabling communications technology continues running – as well as the power to shut it down at will.

This is one way of describing the situation Twitter and NTT America found themselves in earlier this week when Iranian protestors – and their supporters in the US and elsewhere – demanded the company reschedule planned maintenance that would shut down the service at a critical time.

It is also a description of the options available to the US government in April 1994 as it weighed whether or not to intervene in what we now refer to as the Rwandan genocide.

I don’t raise this point to draw comparisons between Iranian protesters and Hutu militias. For what it’s worth I’m on record as advocating that Twitter reschedule its maintenance.

On the contrary I draw this comparison to illustrate a point. The US did not jam radio broadcasts in Rwanda in 1994 out of concerns of violating international law and involving itself in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.

When Twitter and NTT America rearranged their plans they took sides in the internal affairs of Iran.

However much I may agree with the move, this raises ethical questions. Setting aside generally-accepted lobbying practices, should companies involve themselves in the politics of a sovereign nation? (And as you think about the question, remember how some US companies involved themselves in Latin American politics during the Cold War).

The questions become murkier when you consider the news that Twitter’s planned downtime was rescheduled, at least in part, as a result of a request by the US State Department. Whatever you views on this issue, requests made by the US government to technology companies have been the subject of recent controversy (to put it mildly). Should companies cooperate with the US government when cooperation forces them to – by definition – side with the political aims of a group of people in another country?

Let’s switch gears for a minute and think about Facebook. The recent murder of a security guard at the Holocaust museum in Washington DC prompted Michael Arrington to write, for a second time, about a Facebook policy that permits hate groups to be active on the site. Facebook employees responded to Arrington’s post by defending the policy on free speech grounds.

Whatever my personal feelings, I can see – and I hope most others can as well – that both sides have approached this issue thoughtfully and with the goal of taking what they perceive to be the right, moral course of action. And yet they are, of course, in opposition.

With our lives increasingly inextricable from the social Web; powered-by and transpiring within the cloud; with nations declaring that internet access is a civil right; as ‘vital as water and gas’; companies such as Twitter, Facebook and NTT America are going to face more and more of these impossible ethical quandaries – no-win scenarios that force them to choose between choices that are both right and wrong.

Dealing with these scenarios is fraught with risk and communicating the inevitably complex reasoning and good intentions that go into any ethical decision is incredibly difficult.

It is also – as should be clear in these recent cases, unavoidable.

What ethical responsibilities do these and other companies – and the cloud itself – have to end users? We need to start thinking through the scenarios and coming up with some answers.

The past few weeks witnessed the introduction of two new competitors to Google: Bing and WolframAlpha.  Both services have their strengths (and weaknesses); however they both experienced rocky roll-outs.  Here are three lessons public relations professionals should learn from the respective launches.

1.      If you’re going to launch, be open for business.  The world was introduced to Bing May 28th. But not really. Visitors to the site were greeted first by a blank screen, then with a note that Bing would be “coming soon.” The launch release indicated it would be available for actual searches six days later on June 3rd.  The end result? A tremendous loss of traffic that wasted massive amounts of  publicity.

2.      If you’re going to tease, make sure there’s a payoff.  The launch of WolframAlpha was fed by months of speculation and anticipation (a leaked screen shot, a video demo with no shots of the service, etc).  When it launched, however, the service did not live up to, probably unrealistic, expectations. The result? By one measure interest in WolframAlpha has cooled significantly.

3.      Don’t be cute, but if you insist on being cute, be consistent.  You may think WolframAlpha and Bing are search engines but they’re not. How do we know? They told us. WolframAlpha is a ‘computational knowledge engine’ while Bing is ‘decision engine.’ What’s wrong with this? First, the phrase ‘computational knowledge engine’ needs its own ‘computational knowledge engine’ to be understood.  Second, while ‘decision engine’ is easier to understand, Microsoft is inconsistent in its messaging.  Just check out the launch release wherein Bing is described as both a ‘decision engine’ and a ‘new approach to search.’ If you want to play down comparisons to your chief competitor, describe yourself as something different all the time. If the comparisons are unavoidable, don’t try to avoid them.

I said there were three lessons, but here’s one more thing we should all remember.  When you’re naming you’re new product, make sure you think through all the ways your new name can be manipulated.

Just a quick note to direct our loyal readers to this Nightline segment about the recent Domino’s Pizza crisis.  It’s a good overview of the topic and resident expert and colleague John Bell is featured.

A few weeks ago I finished reading Talent is Overrated by Fortune Senior Editor Geoff Colvin. It’s a good book; the kind that makes you sit up straight as you’re reading it, as if slouching would do it a disservice.

The book makes a persuasive argument that nature is decidedly subordinate to nurture — at least in regard to concepts such as ‘work’ or ‘performance’. Pointing to a range of examples from the athletic (Jerry Rice, Tiger Woods) to the historic (Benjamin Franklin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), Colvin demonstrates that excruciating and deliberate practice improves performance in a way that no other factor seems to replicate.

As I read the book I began to wonder what forms of practice might best apply to PR professionals. It’s one thing to acknowledge that practice improves performance; it’s another to know what forms of practice are worthwhile.

I’ve given it some thought and here are some initial ideas for types of practice that might improve foundational PR skills. I don’t think it begins to scratch the surface however, and would be interested in getting ‘the wisdom of crowds’ on this:

  • Improve writing skills, general knowledge, understanding of the media: Taking a page from Benjamin Franklin, choose one article each day in a publication relevant for the industries you support and rewrite it from memory. Wait a few days — rewriting other articles in the intervening period — and compare it with the original. Analyze the differences, the strengths and weaknesses of the comparative pieces and so on.
  • Improve overall performance, ability to give and receive feedback: Mimic the military: after any half-way significant endeavor gather team members in a room and disregard hierarchy. What worked (or is working)? What didn’t (or isn’t)? Then take this a step further. Crunch some numbers. If we’re dealing with a pitch, what was the response rate from the email? What was the response rate from follow-up calls? How many calls or emails did it take to reach an interview? Force objectivity and the most excruciating level of self-analysis. Bottom-line, stay objective and reject rank.
  • Improve business savvy, writing, and knowledge of media/publicity cycles: The tool of business schools everywhere: force yourself to write one new case study — for a non-client — each month. Pick a major news maker (for good or bad reasons) and outline the entire media cycle. Include metrics when available and make strong conclusions (and recommendations). Submit to your colleagues for review and feedback.
  • Improve pitching & business development skills: Force yourself and your team to go to as many networking events not tied to PR or the industries you represent as possible. This isn’t about selling and there should be no pressure. This is about forcing yourself to make connections in a short period of time. Set goals. Make everyone responsible for making at least one connection with a plan for follow-up, at each event.
  • Improve message development & delivery: Before every meeting (internal or external) write down your three key messages and brainstorm one attention-grabbing statement. Take notes throughout the meeting to see how well you do sticking to your messages and bridging to them when the conversation takes a turn. Rate yourself after each meeting.
  • Improve something: Bottom line, we can all get better at something. Find a flaw and force yourself to confront it. For what it’s worth, my new blog: Difference Engineering, is an example of exactly this point.

I have some other ideas, but I’ll stop here for now. Let me know what you think.

There are 32% fewer articles being published by traditional technology publications today then there were just two years ago. How do I know? Well I don’t. Not for certain. But I think I have information that points to this conclusion.

A few weeks ago I was asked if there was some way to articulate the decline in traditional tech media beyond pointing to layoffs and examples of magazines folding or moving online. I thought about it for a while and came to the following conclusions:

  • If the traditional tech media is declining then fewer articles must be appearing.
  • If fewer articles are appearing, then media databases should pick up the change.
  • If this is true then searching several years’ worth of tech trade articles for common, every-day words should provide a reasonably accurate picture.

With these points in mind I decided to count the number of articles in technology trade media from 2004-2008 featuring the most frequently used word in the English language: ‘the’.

I found that from 2006-2008 the number of articles decreased from 135757 to 92021, a decline of 32%. While not perfect, this seems to strongly indicate that there are 32% fewer articles being published by these outlets today then in 2006.

For more info, a fuller explanation and a look at some other words that seem to confirm this analysis, see Difference Engineering, a new blog I’ve started that will explore marketing and communications from a more objective lens.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a long time.  I give you, in all our glory, members of Ogilvy PR’s DC tech practice.

And for the record, while I am scary good at the Wii tennis, next time someone asks me that question, I’ll remember the correct answer.


I’m doing an interview this afternoon (4PM ET) about best practices in PR during the current economic environment – the topic of my last post.  Here’s the link.  There’s a call-in number if you want to join the conversation.

Sean Callahan of BtoB Magazine interviewed me last week about how companies should conduct PR in a recession.  The resulting article can be read here*.

A recession is an interesting time for marketers.  Companies often view marketing as an easy place to cut, yet those companies that maintain or increase spend can pick up market share. Witness Apple.

When thinking about PR in a recession the first thing companies need is an understanding of public relations.  Everyone understands advertising.  Advertising is something you buy.  You can buy more, or less, depending on a variety of factors.

PR, however, is something you do.  It is the marketing discipline most concerned with how a company communicates to its various constituencies (customers, vendors, employees, partners, media, analysts and other influencers).  No company stops doing this; they just stop doing it well.

So what should companies be focused on doing well in a recession?  Here’s my list:

  1. News Optimization: Most press releases are not only worthless but – insofar as they take time and money to create – harmful. Focus on the 2-3 most valuable pieces of news you plan on announcing all year then use the excess time to weave customers, partners, analysts, multimedia content, thought leadership, events and a variety of other components around each remaining piece of news.
  2. Thought Leadership: Your vendors, customers, partners and employees are all worried about your, and their, ability to weather the recession. Companies that position themselves as the people to listen to when things go south can gain mind and market share.  Offer guidance; describe how innovations or new business processes can heighten competitiveness; paint a picture of the path companies need to take to reach tomorrow not just in tact, but thriving.
  3. Content Development: The recession exacerbates problems traditional media have been coping with for years.  Layoffs and bankruptcies – combined with the ubiquity of content development and sharing utilities – means it is more important than ever for companies to tell their stories through video, still photography, audio, slideshows and text anywhere they can.  Every company should be thinking of themselves as de facto publishers.
  4. Internal Communications: You don’t have to be planning a layoff to optimize your internal communications (though if you are, please do).  Your employees are your ambassadors to your key constituencies, as well as the public at large – make sure they’re all singing from the same sheet of music.
  5. Analyst Relations: Your customers rely on industry analysts to help shape their purchasing decisions. The ability to deliver is one of the key components most analysts evaluate vendors on. Shore up your relationships and make sure that key analysts understand how you’re navigating the troubled economy.
  6. Measurement: By all means, use measurement tools to establish the ROI of your PR programs. However, measurement is also a strategic resource that provides the information critical for the development of any sound public relations plan.  Leverage it accordingly.

*My comments may suggest an (attitudinal) resemblance to Alec Baldwin** in Glengarry Glen Ross***. This is (mostly) inadvertent.

**No physical resemblance, except, perhaps, with late-model pudgy Baldwin.

***No link. This is a family blog.





Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide