08 March 2021
Does your company have a crisis communication plan? Most consumer services companies, especially franchise businesses, have at least some sort of business continuation or disaster recovery plan. These are usually very good at cataloging resources to keep your company operating, but what happens when the crisis is not with your operation, but with the brand? At some point, every organization will face an angry, frustrated or just disappointed audience. Knowing how to take responsibility and reassure customers and the community in the middle of a crisis is not the sort of thing you want to make up on the fly. And no matter how well your home-improvement company or fast-casual restaurant treats customers, businesses are run by humans and sooner or later, somebody will do something wrong. How to Respond Obviously, we can’t run around wildly like a bunch of cartoon characters offering a heartfelt apology for every unfortunate circumstance. Operators in food service, home improvement and other consumer-facing businesses know there’s always a squeaky wheel. But when our own action or inaction clearly led to an unpleasant outcome, an effective apology can help you (as the neighbor, the spouse, the anthropomorphized brand, etc.) regain trust. Customers in general are open to forgiving a brand that takes responsibility and expresses regret for its own actions or failures—and it certainly beats blaming somebody else on this score. However, it’s only effective when done properly. These are polite norms that we all kinda, sorta know intuitively, but behavioral scientists Steven Martin and Joseph Marks codified them for us in their book Messengers. They explain that an effective apology: Must be delivered quickly; Must be expressed sincerely; and Must demonstrate a commitment to change. Most of the public apologies we encounter these days fall short on at least one of these criteria. So, where do these less timely, insincere or noncommittal apologies go wrong? Often, it’s a matter of completeness. For example, the apologies lack any tangible or expressed commitment to change or to prevent the offense from happening again. More often, the person apologizing allows his or her personal pride to get between the expression and the whole point of the exercise. They know they need to apologize, but they don’t want to actually take any blame for anything personally. The result is usually some sort of excuse or qualified apology, which is to say, not an apology at all. I am sorry if my words were misunderstood. I apologize to anyone who may have been offended. I didn’t know you were going in there when I left my shoes in the middle of the room. That sort of thing. Knowing when and how to offer an apology can be the difference between regaining the trust of your customers and the public, or turning disappointment into rage.
20 January 2021
Reputation management is key to defending the brand you’ve worked so hard to build. The most visible aspect of reputation management is how customers see you respond to negative reviews and comments. Responding to negative online reviews is one of the more nuanced and, at times, nerve-racking challenges of a successful social media program. Your brand, whether you’re selling confections or construction equipment, ultimately serves customers. Customers are people. And sometimes people are disappointed, unreasonable or just want to get some attention for being the squeaky wheel. It comes with the territory. In fact, online reputation management was one of the greatest obstacles to traditional companies adopting branded social media as much as a dozen years ago. One high-profile CEO with an expression of horror asked me, “You mean anybody can say anything they want, even if it makes us look bad?!” As reassuringly as I could, I told her, “Yes. They can. And they will.” Fast forward a few years and having a social media presence is not an option anymore. Even if you don’t own a smartphone or have an Instagram account, your customers do. And platforms like Google, Yelp and TripAdvisor are incentivizing them to share their opinions. If you’re not engaged in reputation management, somebody will do it for you. Accepting the inevitability of negative online reviews is a great first step in preparing to respond to Google reviews, Yelp comments or Facebook and Twitter posts that may be less than admiring of your product, service or brand. Over the past few years, some brands even have become quite popular for their skill at online reputation management, with some even clapping back at online detractors. Local bars and restaurants have taken to displaying some of their more outrageous reviews ironically as a way to demonstrate their bona fides. Even well-known national brands have gotten into the act. Wendy’s Twitter account, for example, has developed an enthusiastic following for their funny and sometimes brutal roasts in response to unfair attacks. This works for these brands because it’s both in keeping with their brand character AND they have the talent and resources—especially time—to commit to responding. In general, unless you have a very specific clientele that is attracted to wit and snark, it’s not usually a good idea for your reputation management effort to include aggressive banter with dissatisfied customers. Some are trolls, yes, and while it’s tempting, it’s never a great idea to feed them. The most successful brands in the social space respond to negative online reviews and comments with sincere empathy. They demonstrate a genuine concern for consumers while making it clear to their customers and others who may be following along that a single bad experience is not typical and not acceptable. How do smart brands approach online reputation management? The most important best practice is to respond to all negative reviews. Responding will, all by itself, earn you credit in the community. Imagine you’re out there in the real world and somebody is making a complaint to the manager at some business you patronize. You may have no idea whether the customer is right in the case or not. You may even be inclined to feel that the complaints are valid. But as an experienced consumer, you also know that even in the best run organizations, there can be mistakes and disappointments. Demonstrating your openness to listening to your customers and responding to their comments—positive or negative—builds trust in your brand. Take the detailed discussion offline. More than anything, people who post negative online reviews usually just want to be heard. They were looking forward to a pleasant experience and something went wrong. They’re disappointed. Hear them out, but not in the public space of an online back-and-forth if it’s at all possible. Invite them to send a direct message with details and their contact information. Or, offer them a dedicated email address or phone number to open up a personal exchange. Most important, respond quickly. Online and social media interactions are conversations and your brand needs to be present to hold up your end of the dialogue. That means devoting enough resources so that your reputation management team can monitor and quickly respond to questions or comments, positive and negative. It’s OK to say you’re sorry, even if it’s not your fault. Assume best intentions on the part of negative reviewers. At least until demonstrated otherwise. Maybe they were just expecting something else. Maybe they have your place confused with another business. Showing sympathy for the misunderstanding shows a commitment to service and can only enhance your brand reputation. For a customizable toolkit for responding to negative online reviews, subscribe to our email list!
30 November 2020
Newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets are no longer the only ways your public relations efforts reach people. But knowing how to write a press release remains a valuable skill for gaining the attention of websites and news outlets that can influence your customers, suppliers, partners and community. And while there’s no way to control if or how your press release will be used by news and trade media after you release it, the document itself provides a marketing asset that you can repurpose over and over on your website, in employee communications, with vendors and partners, and share with current and prospective customers. So, how do you write a press release that actually does its job? 1. First, write your press release for effect. You are telling a story and that story has a purpose: What do we need our audience to know? What should that knowledge help them understand or think about the brand, event or product you’re announcing? What do you want your audience to DO? 2. Give the press release a headline that briefly summarizes your story. This is a departure from what they teach in school, but the headline is the first—and sometimes only part of—your release that people will read. Make sure it expresses the point of your press release in as few words as possible. ABC Corp Launches Most Efficient Widget, for example. 3. Stick as closely as possible to journalistic voice. Your press release is telling your story to a sometimes-skeptical audience. It is not an advertisement, so avoid using emotional language or superlatives that are open to debate. ABC Corp may be the largest manufacturer in the market, but the body of your press release is not the place to claim it’s the best. 4. Consider an AP Stylebook for reference. Journalists and editors are not the only audience for your press release, but they generally are the first one. Like many professions, they have a specialized way of doing things that helps them distinguish the pros from the poseurs. Something as simple as using the wrong abbreviation in your dateline might tell them you’re not one of the initiated, giving them permission to take your press release less seriously. Every outlet has their own specific style, but the Associated Press offers a fairly standard version in handy paperback form through most booksellers. 5. Be direct. The first sentence of your press release (called a lede, in an alternate spelling of “lead” because, see #4) should briefly tell the reader exactly what you are announcing. Don’t bury the lede; it’s not a suspense novel. You need to get the point quickly. Compare and contrast: ABC Corp today announced a new widget that does widget things three times faster than other widgets on the market. A new innovation in widgets was announced today by ABC Corp, maker of the most awesome widgets in the world. Example b. does make people wonder what’s coming next. Unfortunately, what’s next for them is likely to be scrolling down to the next email. Go with option a. 6. Explain the relevance. The second sentence of your press release should explain why this announcement is important and to whom. ABC Corp Announced a New Widget may be true, accurate and exciting to you, but it has very little meaning to people who didn’t roll out of bed thinking about widgets. Explain the relevance as early in your press release as possible with a follow-up like: The increased efficiency of the new widget will save widget users more than $3 billion dollars over the next two years. See? Now there’s a reason to care about your press release. 7. Use quotes to advance your message. Include a quote in your press release from somebody in your organization. This is where you can add emotion to advance your story. It not only personalizes your company, it gives you a space to introduce opinion: “This is exactly what every widget user has been asking for,” said Jane Smith, ABC Corp president. “We’re excited to be the first company to make widgeting affordable to the average consumer.” And read those quotes out loud. Does it sound like somebody would actually say that? If not, consider a revision to make it sound more natural. Also, any quotes you use in your press release should be approved by the person you’re quoting. Even if you heard her say it out loud, make sure it’s how she wants to phrase it given careful consideration. 8. Give your writing some time. Take a break between drafts of your press release and reread it to make sure you’re telling the story in a way that directly addresses a business objective. For most brands, simply seeing your name in the news is not a business objective. It makes everybody feel good, but it doesn’t make the cash register ring. 9. Evaluate your draft press release against the same questions we began with: Does it tell your audience what you need them to know? Does the story help your customers or other members of the public think about, understand or know something that helps you achieve a business objective? Is it clear what your audience can do to act on the information and how (visit your store, call for an appointment, request a free quote, ask for your brand by name)? Planning and executing an effective public relations program for your brand involves many more challenges than how to write a press release. Still, a press release is one of the first and tangible introductions some audiences will have to your brand messaging. It’s worth the effort to get it right. For a brief list of the most common mistakes people make when learning how to write a press release, join our email list. (Sign up below.)
12 October 2020
28 July 2020
There’s a saying among litigators that goes something like this: If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If the law is on your side, pound the law. If neither is on your side, pound the table. The thing about that maxim is that it works equally well as a mocking review of almost any argument with which you disagree, or as pretty solid career advice for anyone who aspires to persuade people for a living. Like lawyers. Or advertisers. That’s because marketing strategy depends on having a conversation with your customers that is both relevant to them and highlights the specific benefits of your brand. In the late 1960s, major home appliances like washing machines had become harder for advertisers to differentiate. The performance and features offered by the big manufacturers were pretty comparable, particularly when it came to higher-end models. But one copywriter at Leo Burnett found a way to frame the purchasing decision in a way that ensured his client would definitely stand out. The insight pointed out the worst part of owning a major appliance was when it stopped working. Other, larger competitors pointed to their national networks of factory-trained repair technicians, but based on that insight, they were making the wrong case. And so, the Maytag Repairman came to be. With a single idea, Maytag changed the conversation from which machine was bigger or got whites brighter to which one you could actually depend on. Framed that way, Maytag would continue to chip away at the market share of its much larger competitors for another 35 years or so, when one of them finally gave in and bought the company. Combine a new insight with a creative idea and you’ve got a powerful force. These are the proverbial unicorns—those truly revolutionary products that are exactly what everybody wanted or needed and just didn’t know it until a new gizmo came along. This week in particular, air conditioning comes to mind. But if your brand has real competition, and your customers have real options, you’ll likely benefit from framing the discussion to the context that best suits your benefits. Which conversation you decide to have can make all the difference.
19 June 2020
Consumers adapted to COVID-19 restrictions in many different ways—and marketers have had to shift gears with them. It’s more than demand moving to no-contact pickup and delivery options. Buying habits have changed quickly, with people purchasing more of some staples (see: Toilet Paper, Booze), and spending less on other things like hair products … and pants. Some of these changes will disappear as quickly as the social distancing markers on the floor at your grocery store. Others might stick around in different forms. As our Natalie Shawver pointed out a couple of weeks ago, there are more than a few we wouldn’t mind keeping. Our client Holman RV is seeing that play out right now. Families eager to maintain the tradition of summer travel are increasingly seeing travel campers and other recreational vehicles as a way to tour the country in a more controlled environment. Will the market stay this strong forever? Probably not. But a lot of families are having a new experience because of the crisis. They’re trying new things and, as marketers, we’re all on notice to pay attention to their evolving preferences. Because it’s a safe bet that many of them will keep some of those preferences, even when the signs and the masks are gone. http://stgregory.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Jun-20-COVID-RV-sales.mp4 This post is part of a series on marketing during and after the pandemic. To read the others, follow this link.
23 March 2020
There’s no communication playbook for the current public health emergency. Nobody alive has ever faced this particular communication challenge, let alone in the context of worldwide, always-on keyboard commentary. But there are some consistent principles. Make it about them It may be a matter of great professional pride that your IT team has managed to scale up access to the VPN and add remote back-up functionality to your EOS on such short notice, but are these details your customers and vendors actually need right now? Do a quick scan of your inbox folder. How many COVID-19 messages have you gotten in the last week? Or, the last 24 hours, even? How many did you read from beginning to end? Just like we learned to ignore irrelevant online ads, we’ve all trained ourselves to skip over the corporate messages that don’t have meaning or value for us, personally. Skip to the part in your communication where you get to “What This Means to You.” Consider opening with that. And, if your compliance people will go along, consider closing with it, too. Be human We’re communicating in tense times about serious issues. It’s even more tempting than usual to rely on corporate-speak. Utilizing one’s multisyllabic vocabulary when your smaller words will do is not just less clear, it’s exhausting. There’s no reason your news release, customer email, vendor letter or social media post should sound like it was written by a committee of insecure law school applicants. You’re talking to people. Be compassionate Speaking of talking to people, many of them are confused and some are downright scared. The changes you’re announcing or the new process your organization is following might mean anything from a reassurance or an inconvenience to a genuine problem for your audience. Remember, this is about them, so take responsibility for that. To whatever extent you can control, be flexible in individual cases, but mostly, admit that this is an issue and that the people behind your brand are trying their best to minimize the disruption to the people in front of you. Stay in your lane You’re a smart person. You know lots of things about lots of things. But unless you actually are an epidemiologist or a public health expert, don’t sound like you think you are one. Reminding customers and visitors that your organization is following social distancing procedures is fine. But if you want to share best practices, preventative measures or treatment protocols with your employees or outside audiences, direct them to actual experts in those fields. It’s fine if you want to hand out the local health department’s flier or share a link to the CDC website, but shoehorning health tips and other technical information about the wider situation just distracts from what you set out to communicate in the first place. It also risks damaging the credibility of your brand. This post is part of a series on marketing during and after the pandemic. To read the others, follow this link.
26 February 2020
Your business-to-business campaign clearly explains the advantages of your product. Your sales team has demonstrated the ease of operation, heuristic design and how it fits into your customer’s process. You’ve checked every box the decision maker needs to make an informed, rational, solid business decision. Still … nothing. Why does it take so long to make what you know is the obvious choice? Sometimes as marketers we lose sight of who’s making the purchase decision … and how. Our target customer may be an owner, operations manager, a manufacturing VP, a design engineer or some other business decision-maker. These are professionals who can be counted on to evaluate benefits, lifetime cost and ROI, and they surely use these metrics to explain their choices in the board room. But your customers are not just rational economic actors: They’re human beings. And people can’t help but make decisions with their emotions first. In addition to your customers’ business needs, how will going with your offering affect her or him personally? There are some questions that never get asked out loud. Sure, maybe it does everything you say, but am I going to have to fight with shipping to take advantage of all those features? Is my family going to forget what I look like while we’re switching over? Of course, it can be adjusted quickly and easily, but am I going to be taking calls from the production floor all weekend? All the research in the world is no substitute for understanding your audience as real-live people. There’s a good chance your decision makers are worried about more than their business. They’re worried about their jobs. And their lives. If your marketing can answer the questions that never get asked out loud, you can win their hearts. Their minds will follow.
19 February 2020
Despite an era of digital connectivity and easy access to information, there’s still no substitute for real-life experience. We all want to see the elephant for ourselves. Or the dual-outboard 900-horsepower pontoon boat as the case may be. That’s what we saw a couple of weeks ago as our Client Renfro Productions raised the curtain on their new edition of the Ford Cincinnati Travel, Sports & Boat Show. A consumer show for outdoor enthusiasts presents the easy paradox of requiring attendees to be indoors and surrounded by tens of thousands of other people who also prefer solitude and open spaces. And yet they came. For 63 years now, this show has curated the top experts and equipment for fishing, hunting, boating, powersports, adventure travel and more from across North America. But just as important, it brings together enthusiasts, giving them the opportunity to share their knowledge, experiences and secrets. Despite all the technology, people will always want to be around people like them. We are naturally attracted to others with a shared experience (family holiday gatherings excepted). That makes the crowds of other outdoor enthusiasts a feature. Every year around Labor Day, in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, tens of thousands of people who share a different sort of common identity come together to build a city that lasts only eight days. Artists, performers, self-expressionists, individualists and myriad other non-conformists travel hundreds or even thousands of miles just to spend a week with their own tribe. Most (ahem) of what they do in the desert could just as easily be done at home. And yet they come. To belong to something they feel a part of. Like people do.