Romancing the Message

Early in my career, I was fortunate to work with a very creative PR guy named Patrick Lucci from Boston, Massachusetts. He worked briefly for the semiconductor design firm at which I was marketing communications manager and in that short time, Patrick helped me to understand the importance of “romancing” the marketing message in telling the benefit story of a product.

Semiconductors are the inner workings of those integrated circuit chips you see on the motherboards of your desktop, laptop and notebook computers. The firm I worked for was filled with incredibly talented engineers who, through their knowledge of both analog and digital signal semiconductor design, created the first commercially viable video frequency timing generator. That success spurred the company into its initial public offering in the early days of what would come to be known as the “dot com bubble.” Once the dust from the IPO had settled, the company next set its sights on becoming the first to put sound capability directly on the motherboard via an audio codec chip using wavetable synthesis and real sampled sound.

Sounds pretty technical … and rather unglamorous … so far, doesn’t it? Stay with me, though. There is a reason for all this.

Now, for those of you who may not already know, integrated circuit chips gained semi-rock star status when Intel started to heavily promote their Pentium series microprocessors (the first “Intel Inside” ads). Their popular TV commercials had funky music and people dancing around a staged clean room fabrication facility in multi-colored bunny suits. And here was the brilliant, “out of the box” thinking: Instead of staying strictly business-to-business, Intel took promotion of the Pentium and its “coolness” directly to the consumer, thereby creating heightened consumer demand for Intel’s product over other microprocessors. The OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) complied – they had no choice, really. By selling directly to the consumer, Intel made it fun, even hip, to prefer and demand Pentium-based machines over other manufacturers.

When the time finally came to launch this new codec chip as a product, we asked ourselves … how? IC chips easily became commodities, bought by the thousands by OEMs. Other companies were working to deliver sound on the motherboard as well, but they hadn’t perfected the use of sampled wavetables and used only synthesized sounds. So the first challenge was to differentiate this audio codec from others. Additionally, this codec was a very large chip.  Its “footprint” took up a good amount of real estate on a motherboard, so the second challenge was to ensure this audio codec became a necessity in order to have the OEMs invest the board space and enable the sound application.  

Patrick’s idea was beautiful and universally appealing in its simplicity: Humanize the technology.  

Picture, if you will, a handsome, slender, young professional man, standing in a color-added, sepia-toned background, dressed in a white shirt, dress slacks and tie and holding up the screen of his laptop computer. He smiles lovingly into the screen, which holds the image of a cherub-faced baby, smiling back at the young man through the screen. The screen (and the baby’s face) are on the same level as the young man’s face, providing a strong focal point for the viewer.  The headline: “Talk to Me, Baby.” 

In a single image, the viewer understood the product’s capability and how it could be of benefit through a powerful application. Even more important was the perception of the young man as a father who was able to not only see his child, perhaps before bedtime, but to also have them hear each other. Suddenly, all that technology had a very human reason for being important to the consumer – and to the manufacturer. The result was profoundly impactful, and even worthy of a company of Intel’s status. The company couldn’t make the chips fast enough.

As mixed signal integrated circuit chip design led to mixed media in and through the advertising and promotion of the Wavedec audio codec, we “romanced” the technology in its application through the warmth of a very human and universal message — the need for connection between a working father and his child. The message of technology serving a greater purpose delivered in a very believable application was compelling. The result was high acceptance and demand, not to mention an award or two for the ad itself. And sound capability resides on motherboards to this day.

“Romancing” the marketing message advances the creativity of the designers’ end product through promotion of the best, even highest, possible purpose and application of the product. In the end, shouldn’t that be what selling benefits over features is all about?


Listening IS the R O I

Traditionally conservative, major corporations maintain control of business communications costs through equally traditional and recognizable ROI measurements. However, with the growth of social media channels and their popularity with the consuming public, not to mention the enticing low cost of taking advantage of these media, this segment of the “corporate comfort zone” is undergoing (dare I say the word?) CHANGE.  To do this successfully, companies must let go of the type and level of control they have traditionally held dear to their corporate hearts and embrace not only new ways of measuring effectiveness, but relax their stiff attitudes and find new models for engaging the buying public.  This is no small feat and, in some cases, it’s causing internal rifts as everyone from C-suite execs to line managers  work out how to adapt what is learned through interactive media feedback to benefit the customer and the organization going forward.

Most importantly, it’s required an increase in the volume of corporate hearing aids globally.


A New C-Suite Office

Prior to his retirement earlier this year, Kodak’s former CMO, Jeffery Hayzlett, created a new role within the company’s most senior leadership and appointed a “Chief Listening Officer.” This new post has the mission to actively listen to social media conversations, engage in those conversations to build greater relationship with the social public, and direct or facilitate issue and complaint resolution wherever necessary.

In Anneke Seley’s blog post on “The Results of Listening to or Ignoring Your Customers,” (http://tinyurl.com/27425zm), Hayzlett’s perspective on the ROI monitoring practice is formulated for transparency and keeps pace with the customers’ world view. She writes:  “Like many of us, Hayzlett was frequently challenged by his CFO about the ROI of his social media marketing programs. His retort: ‘Engagement is the new ROI. You want to know the other ROI? Return on Ignoring!’”

Hayzlett got it right. Ignoring the consuming public to any such degree has rather quickly become almost unforgivable.


Customer “Listening Posts” 

This really isn’t a new concept. It’s been building for a few years now.

Started modestly in 1999, GSI Commerce, in King of Prussia, PA, (http://www.gsicommerce.com) creates transaction-based (e-commerce) retail websites for some of the best known retail brands today, from Dick’s Sporting Goods to Ralph Lauren apparel among others. Delivering “… an exceptional and engaging e-commerce shopping experience to [their clients] customers,” sites designed and implemented by GSI include online customer product and service reviews. The reviews are not edited; good and poor posts are online for all to read – and for the company to act upon.

 I believe online consumer reviews were front runners to the more active role social media sites that have taken on in this functionality. It’s no different from listening at the keyholes of social sites like Twitter and Facebook, except that it’s specific to that particular online retail buying experience, and the social media sites broadcast across wider listening networks.


Listening IS the Return on Investment  

Regardless of B2B or B2C, after all that program code and trouble to ensure the consumer’s voice is heard, what if no one was actually listening? My money would be on continued mediocrity within every marketing and selling space, with no edge leading or cutting a path for now-critical customer insights. No one would be listening for desired ways to meet market needs and we’d still be doing business as we did in the ‘80s and ‘90s, at the hands of what the business thought customers wanted, based on comparatively limited research.

 Without active listening, without engaging and going the extra distance to make it easy for consumers or customers to make their issues known in real time for prompt correction, a company does reap the negative “Return on Ignoring,” by doing nothing to improve the customer’s experience.


New Vulnerability

In an interview with Lee Odden in April 2008, Charlene Li, of Forrester Research, best selling author of Groundswell – Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies  and founder of The Altimeter Group,  observed, “Companies need to realize that they have to give up control — or as I like to think, the semblance of control — in order to engage with the customers and employees in the groundswell. It’s really, really hard, and most companies don’t ‘get it’ initially. And even if you do get engaged, you’ll constantly be making mistakes and learning along the way.”

Listening in the social media channels is key to staying aware of what customers are saying about the company and for showing the company’s responsiveness to ensure customer satisfaction, if not delight. Ignoring is not an option if a company wishes to remain competitive, CFOs and accountants notwithstanding.


Additional “Ears”   

I like the idea of dedicating additional staff to listen and ensure response to customers. And the next step would be to invest the time and effort to produce internal guidelines. As Seley suggests, enable sales managers and sales reps to become listening officers as well. Wouldn’t they have the ideal seat for this? Some of the more enlightened companies are, and have been, making changes to create a supportive group of competent internal specialists capable of authentic relating outside the business walls. And here’s the point: A listening culture of this magnitude can drive improvement and responsiveness throughout the organization – led by the CLO in conjunction with (just think of it) business communications.

 With the evolution of social media tools, and the addition of company guidelines to follow, how far fetched is this, really? Not very. Companies respond in real time to customers’ needs – and, if done well, receive immediate positive feedback in these mediums. When appropriately trained, it’s highly appropriate for business communicators to do what it takes to enable this increase in responsible interaction.


Control is Not Authentic

I agree with Charlene Li that social and new media make it an absolute necessity for companies to relinquish their illusion of control. But, like trying to turn the Titanic on a dime, it’s not easy for businesses to transition to this new vulnerability. Those that use social media thinking they can maintain old-style control find that these platforms are self-correcting – and customers can sniff out the lack of authenticity instantly. So, with help from communicators and evangelists within, businesses are adapting, albeit slowly.

Businesses making this transition will find the risk worthwhile. When companies listen to the marketplace with an air of humility, they become more authentic to their customers. Without trying to manipulate the outcome, the resulting vulnerability gains them more respect, greater appeal in the market place and more loyal customers.

From the C-suite perspective, I think this is far more valuable than relying solely on traditional ROI reporting.

 What do you think?


Recognizing Business Communications

“Marketing communications,” “corporate communications” and “internal communications” simply aren’t sufficient terms any more. These traditional labels only reflect the outlet for their end product. Yet they all share the impact of any press release, public business disclosure or internal policy communication equally. With the new and social media blurring the lines between each, I’m for using the more comprehensive “business communications” label because it acknowledges the interdependency,  synergy and cross-training between the specialties that leads to the successful internal and external communication of everything from new products to employee relations to customer complaints.

Social Media Specialists
The impact of new media outlets (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, LinkedIn, etc.) have helped to create a growing new role in Corporate America: the social media specialist. I believe that corporate managers who see the value of engaging in new media think it’s somehow separate and away from the rest of the communications functions. New people are often brought in to take on this role under other management. But even if they may not respond directly to communications function managers, make no mistake:  these specialists also come under the “business communications” umbrella.  It’s all the same face. It’s all the same place

 The best (or most informed) business communications professionals saw this coming. Many of the unsung heroes who were at the forefront of online connection, figuring out best practices for gathering customer reviews, conversing with consumers, talking to employees, even engaging competitors, have made the transition and have become social media specialists themselves. Others have simply assumed responsibility for the company’s social media presence and have become the de facto specialists. Bottom line: these folks know that the company’s reputation is in the hands of the people they engage with in real time online. It’s not so much about a Facebook fan page or a 7-figure following on Twitter, but more about what to say to those fans and followers … and how to say it. And as professionals, they make it look easy.

Recognition Factor
Frankly, I’d like to see a lot more companies overtly recognize the vital role all business communications people play in creating an approachable company “face” for social and traditional mediums. I’m not talking about grand awards from the International Association of Business Communicators (www.IABC.com) – I’d rather see the companies these people work for genuinely recognize their contributions. They are key to integrating everything into the communications mix that markets everything about the company in every channel.  

Does your company or business have a recognition program for successful communications programs? Have you ever been recognized for your business communications efforts? If so, how … and for what? 

I’d really like to know.

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