One of the biggest challenges facing any professional services firm is cutting through the marketplace clutter to stand out from your competitors. As professional service providers our main asset is our expertise. But this is knowledge that we often share with the competition and standing out from an increasingly congested crowd can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle.
So how do you demonstrate leadership when you’re doing the same thing as your competitors?
Unlike in other industries, uniqueness isn’t as important to potential clients as expertise. So when it comes to professional services it’s the currency of ideas, rather than the individuality of your brand, that’s the main differentiator between companies.
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This is where thought leadership can help. Thought leadership is an invaluable tool that can demonstrate insight by highlighting a problem that your potential client hasn’t even considered, or help to find solutions to a headache they are currently facing. This doesn’t mean that you have to give away the farm, far from it in fact; you merely have to whet their appetite on the issue and demonstrate your expertise along the way.
A good data hook can also transform these ideas into a direct call to action, creating a need for your services by highlighting the extent of a problem that they can solve. For example, at Man Bites Dog we launched global management consultancy Hay Group’s post merger human capital integration practice by proving that 91% of mergers fail due to culture shock. The campaign delivered 8 million euros of business into the practice in a matter of weeks; proving the problem highlighted by the research resonated with a market need.
Taking ownership of these issues from a PR and marketing perspective can help you to set the news agenda and stimulate debate, demonstrating a need for your services as well as your ability to deliver them. It might be a change of tack for companies used to a traditional approach involving advertising or direct marketing; but wouldn’t it better to embrace the currency of ideas and show potential customers what you do rather than simply telling them about it? We certainly think so.
A few weeks after we first met, my husband suggested things were more likely to work out if I lowered my expectations. And they say romance is dead. The sorry truth is he turned out to be right. Expect less, appreciate more – so I’m happy a takeaway’s been ordered, not left wondering how a human being has survived so long only able to cook an egg sandwich.
If only Frances Osborne had had the foresight to teach her significant other a similar life lesson. Along with enjoying an altogether jollier time, the Chancellor could have done with the practice in managing expectations.
Buoyed up by revised GDP figures and the OECD’s 1.5% growth forecast George Osborne threw caution to the wind this week and went and said it. The economy is finally “turning a corner”. Politicians of all colours are all too familiar with the reputational risks of spotting green shoots too early but the temptation appears to have been too much. After so many months of only minuscule percentages to show for austerity, ministers must be beside themselves to have market data on their side at last.
But the dangers of over-promising and under-delivering are still waiting in the wings, especially with living costs remaining painfully high. Managing expectations is essential in corporate communications and these three tips translate to business as well as politics:
1. Get back-up
Big promises need the support of a united front to be trusted. Unfortunately for the Chancellor, less than 48 hours after his speech Vince Cable urged caution, warning against the dangers of “complacency generated by a few quarters of good economic data”. Speaking to John Humphrys the Business Secretary was all caution and clichés: “it’s a marathon not a sprint”, there are “encouraging signs” but “we can’t rest on our laurels”. Make sure those close to you think your promises are realistic before making them public.
2. Question the limits of your evidence
Whether you’re using data or examples to prove a point, never underestimate the limitations of your evidence. This week’s numbers show the economy entering a growth stage, but that in itself is not enough to prove the genuine rebalancing we’ve been led to expect.
On Wednesday John Plender persuasively argued that the UK is experiencing “the wrong kind of growth”, driven by consumption and property prices. The Government is fond of reminding the public of the instability of growth in Gordon Brown’s boom and bust years, but is yet to evidence a significant rebalance away from debt-fuelled consumption towards exports and investment. And while Vince Cable is right to say the UK has had some success in increasing exports to developing markets, we may have got there just in time for the slowdown.
The lesson is simple; interrogate what the evidence really proves and resist the temptation to overstate what it means for the future.
3. Actions speak louder than words
Sometimes clichés are true (see Dr Cable earlier). Whatever the numbers suggest, the long-promised recovery will only be real once people start feeling the difference in pay packets and living costs.
Anyone can say the right thing and as much as ministers stress their plan is working, the opposition will claim years of potential growth have been wasted in the stranglehold of austerity. The proof’s in the proverbial pudding, so hold off the celebrations till you’ve finished the job.
Failing all else keep those expectations low and anything you deliver over and above will be a bonus. I know how to appreciate a good egg sandwich.
There are some news stories that I’ve learnt to avoid… ‘new football season’, ‘train fare hikes’ and anything to do with ‘soap stars’.
Yet, nothing quite gets me ranting like ‘exam results day’. Headlines I have avoided in the last fortnight include: ‘GCSEs 2013: Top grades fall for second year’, ‘A-level results and clearing 2013: as it happened’ and ‘A-level results day 2013 in pictures’.
It’s not just the sweaty-palmed fear I experience remembering my own special day, it’s the relentless, dull, clichéd news reporting that happens year after year.
There is no doubt that exam results are important and very well-deserved – students have worked incredibly hard to achieve them and they’re an important step up the eventual career ladder.
In PR we talk about the media ‘silly season’ that envelops most of August. ‘Exam results day’ is a classic example of this. The endless build up, the lazy reporting of smiling/crying students and the unceasing negativity aimed at teachers, parents, exam boards and universities.
The themes are always the same: exams getting easier, ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects, and grading fiascos, peppered with vox pops stating the obvious (“it was different in my day”). The BBC has compiled a far more comprehensive list in ‘the unofficial exam results phrase book’.
For my part, I’ve written a list of the most shudder-inducing results day moments below.
Live opening of exam results
A go-to for breakfast TV shows and local broadcasters that delight in forcing students to learn their fate in front of a live audience. This type of voyeurism should never be encouraged.
Attractive students leaping in the air
I had a very similar visceral response to Olympic athletes being encouraged to bite their medals for the camera. As I sit up here on my high horse though, I am reminded that I may or may not have leapt into the air on cue for my local paper circa 2003.
12-year-olds with A*s
It’s literally a case of how low can you go. I expect to see toddlers with A-level maths any day now. This does nothing to dispel the ‘exams are getting easier’ myth.
The ‘clearing’ melodrama
‘Coming to a cinema near you – the highs, the lows, the bitter disappointments (running time: 1 week minimum)’.
Yet, there’s hope. Students like me who have been encouraged to jump for joy on results day are now at university or in jobs. Many of us are helping to shape the news agenda. That’s our next challenge – taking our dumbed down, Mickey Mouse qualifications and using them to do things differently!
Everyone’s talking about integrated PR, sales & marketing campaigns these days. But how many companies are truly making the best use of their content?
I’ve been lucky enough to work on some hugely successful campaigns over the last year. They’ve generated a host of top-tier media coverage, given the companies a distinctive brand and led to profitable conversations with key prospects. This is the “holy trinity” that we all strive for.
However, for many B2B firms, the sales ‘process’ is a bit of a hidden myth. Compared to their consumer counterparts, their targets are tucked away in the depths of their partners’ and consultants’ minds.
Partners and consultants don’t always see themselves as sales people, but the truth is they are vital to maximising marketing ROI. Despite this, the first they hear of a new comms programme is often when they read it on the intranet – if ever at all.
The reasons for this are two-fold. First, they are used to operating in this way and have found it difficult to find time to see the value of working more closely with marketing. Second, their clients are happy and they may not realise that their clients would value them even more if they proactively shared some new insights with them, which may even lead to conversations about more work.
The common thread is evidence. They need to be shown that they are missing a trick in order to change their ways. This makes it hard for marketers to break the mould, but is well worth it when they succeed.
In order to get your experts involved, think about:
From press releases about what you’re doing for other companies to microsites where you can pick out the most relevant data, there is a multitude of content that your experts’ contacts would be interested in seeing. Consider how to make these easy for them to access and share.
Press release, microsite, eBook, infographic – these “technical” terms have a limited meaning to the non-marketer. Consider what explanations and rules are needed e.g. the purpose, key findings and key messages of a campaign, in order for your experts to do them justice.
One expert might be comfortable with quickly sharing a link to a new article on LinkedIn; another will see “marketing” as a time consuming process that is beyond their capabilities and/or capacity. Pre-empt these challenges and work with the most amenable experts first to get things started.
You need to make it easy for your experts to see and share new content and work out what’s most relevant to their clients. And don’t forget, just because a report talks about one sector doesn’t mean it can’t be cross-sold to another.
Coming back to my point about showing experts how it’s done, encourage people to share examples of how proactively reaching out to clients in this way has generated positive feedback and opened up new business opportunities. You might even end up creating some healthy competition!
As content drives ever-closer integration between PR, sales and marketing, it’s going to become even more important than ever to make this work as hard as possible for your business.
People who hold client relationships, are members of industry associations and/or spend a considerable amount of their time networking are going to be a vital source of new business, and need to be encouraged and enabled to make the best use of these assets.
Eventually, this will become a more considered aspect of the long-term measurement and evaluation of a marketing project. Your most prolific content propagators will also be able to tell you what resonates with clients and what feedback they’re getting, to feed into future campaigns.
Phubbing: the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention.
My soon-to-be parents-in-law always joke that my fiancé can’t live without his phone, having it glued to his body and resorting to its wisdom when anyone asks a question that’s left unanswered. It’s all rather funny, until you actually stop for a minute and think about it.
Today I came across an article in The Independent that really made me stop and think about how the world (including myself) is obsessed with technology; by that, I mean phones and tablets. ‘Phubbing’ is the act of snubbing someone that you are meant to be socially interacting with, by looking at your phone, or taking a call instead of paying attention. I really think that its creator has an argument.
At what point did we choose to start looking at a device, as opposed to engaging in a conversation with a colleague, loved one, friend or animal (I’ve phubbed my dog a lot recently, and yes, I love chatting away to him as if he were human). Of course, there are certainly some situations that require a mobile device, such as an emergency, like you need an ambulance, you want to know how to convert metric to imperial, or you want to cheat at the pub quiz; you know, the really obvious examples.
Alex Haigh, a 23 year-old Melbourne resident has had enough of seeing what he says are ‘glazed faces in public places, text-tapping fingers during supposedly intimate dinners, and reunions that might as well have been held via Google hangouts given the screen time involved’. Haigh has set up www.stopphubbing.com in aid of his quest to eradicate phubbing from the world.
Granted, technology is a major part of everyone’s lives now, but there is a time and a place to whip your phone out. According to Haigh’s research (a YouGov poll), a third of people surveyed would answer their phone mid-conversation (rude!) and in the US, a Moment Feed / Instagram report found that over a three-week period, 2,365 photos were tagged to T.G.I. Friday restaurants. So apparently people are more interested in documenting their dining experience than enjoying it and the company they are with.
So why don’t we all put down our devices, and go back to basics; debate, chat, laugh, cry, even cuddle (I know, crazy). Or, if you’re still angry about being phubbed repeatedly, you can always send the perpetrator an intervention letter, all pre-prepared and accessible on Haigh’s website (I’ve already sent this to the husband-to-be).
Come on people, it’s getting ridiculous. Stop phubbing!!!
It really ain’t easy being green. People have got a little complacent at times, a fair-trade coffee here a carbon-neutral chocolate bar there and we’re all doing our bit right?
Well, not really.
Every company now devotes serious time and money to corporate social responsibility schemes but people have been smelling a rat with laissez-faire CSR for a while now.
I think the number of central London pubs sporting a carbon neutral certificate, curling at the corners from the rigours of the booze-laden air, illustrates this quite clearly – everyone seems to be claiming to be green. There’s no wonder that there is a growing cynicism about this.
There is good reason to believe that some are serious about these schemes – it certainly shows a willingness to address sustainability within corporate structures – but there sometimes seems an inherent dishonesty to a lot of this work? Plenty of organisations have fallen into the trap of supporting work that has conflicting goals with their own.
Companies can’t simply paper over the fissures that there work creates, nor pay money into a sustainability pot and expect to set the world right and pick up the eco-conscious pounds. Dr Shubro Sen, the founder of the Conscious Capitalism Initiative, warns that: “We operate in a digital fishbowl. So you are going to get found out, you can’t fake it any more”.
The real problem is that organisations just aren’t that good at this. And, who can blame them? PR consultants will sympathise with the inability of certain clients to step outside the company message, in fact it’s one of the things agencies can do so effectively for businesses. An outside perspective is so important to really understanding outward perception.
Recent research claimed that only about a quarter (28 percent) of organisations with a CSR strategy are integrating it into their corporate communications strategy, let alone placing it in the hands of an external expert. It seems to me, something could be done to ensure this is this integral part of their messaging is part of the offering from agencies.
I’ll free up my conscience a bit here by clarifying that corporate CSR is only a tiny part of a major battle for sustainability, but it feels an area that suits the skills of B2B agencies exceptionally well.
The world of CSR is in constant flux and competing claims, complete falsehoods and a lack of expertise has created a void where money is readily flowing. Filling this void and mainstreaming green issues and CSR advice into the B2B offering could be a chance to put some of the money currently wasted on ‘green-washing’ to serious use.
As someone with an interest in B2B communications, you may already be a reader of B2B Marketing magazine.
If so, you’ll have noticed my regular column (complete with slightly crazy caricature!), running alongside Joel’s.
My most recent column is on the topic of CEO’s using social media. You can read it here.
To read more, visit the B2B site and keep your eyes peeled for my next piece!
Bad days. We all get them. It feels like everything and everyone in the world is conspiring against you. On days like that, it can take a lot of self-control to stop yourself boiling over.
Some people, of course, don’t quite manage to contain the anger. It’s then that we see someone screaming their heads off in the Apple store, or people taking their horses into McDonalds in slightly misguided acts of protest.
Sure, it’s entertaining – it gives the news their ‘… and finally’ story of the day – but should we dismiss these amusingly random acts of rage? What if they have a valid point? What if the screaming woman, who was promised the parts she needed by Apple support, is representative of a larger group of equally disgruntled customers?
Ok, it’s less likely with the people trying to take their horses into the drive-thru, but who knows, they could be the tip of the Big Mac loving equestrian iceberg.
While these extreme outbursts are the acts of a small handful of pissed-off individuals, their frustration could be an outrageously expressed indication of something bigger. At the very least, in the age of consumer journalism and media immediacy, businesses must be prepared to deal with these situations quickly and in a personal way.
On the train this morning, along with the rest of my carriage, I was privy to a passenger having a particularly loud and angry rant at his broadband provider. I don’t use said provider myself, but should I consider switching soon, the overheard gripes will be fresh in my mind and will definitely make me think twice.
Businesses, take note: word of mouth is an incredibly powerful tool. Sometimes the joke is on the customer (A horse! In McDonalds! What were they thinking?!), but brands need to be careful that the last laugh isn’t on them.
Last week I spoke at a careers seminar at the London School of Economics about getting into consultancy. It was a great event and a pleasure to be able to share my experiences and advice with soon-to-be graduates. It’s an issue particularly close to my heart – I left university during the height of recession and now co-run Man Bites Dog’s internship scheme.
The audience was smart, savvy and clearly very ambitious. But I was surprised at their lack of imagination when it came to the companies they aspired to work for. A little probing about the recruitment challenges they faced quickly revealed that many of them were going head-to-head, for the same schemes, at the same big consultancies.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that per se. Larger companies offer some fabulous opportunities and structured schemes can be a great way of gathering lots of different experience. But, in a tight labour market it surely makes sense for job-seeking graduates to widen their net?
There is an expanding crowd of fast-growth, visionary, specialist outfits operating in communications that also have something to offer. Perhaps even something more exciting to offer.
This week PR Week published their Top 150 Consultancies Report, which examines the financial performance of the UK PR industry. This year’s analysis showed that the industry’s overall 2.5% growth (2012) was largely driven by newer companies. Whereas the top 30 experienced average growth of 5%, 17 smaller agencies grew by more than 50%.
It’s a great time to be a smaller PR shop. With growth comes opportunity, especially for graduates. The clients are high profile industry leaders, the business model is agile, and the people are expert, dynamic and entrepreneurial. You’ll have more contact with senior members of the team and can gain genuine insight from working with organisation heads.
In bigger agencies it’s easy to fade into the background, in smaller ones you’re centre stage. That’s what attracted me to Man Bites Dog. I was able to learn and progress at my own pace and the thought of being tied in to a ‘one size fits all’ programme made me shudder. What’s more I got to work with some of the business world’s heavy-hitters. Pretty jammy, eh?!
Despite all this it’s clear that the big guns are still the default first consultancy of choice for many graduates.
I think we have some PR to do…
From my previous blog, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m a bit obsessed with evolution. I do have a picture of Charles Darwin on my desk, but I also have a sock monkey, a toy skateboard, a gold Scrabble tile and a mini cactus – so y’know. Don’t judge me.
It’s fair to say however that in the past six or seven years, social media networks, especially the titans: Twitter and Facebook, have evolved rapidly.
Back in 2006/ 2007, each new channel had it’s own unique selling point. From my perspective, before I realised Twitter’s microblogging potential and long before I discovered @ messages or hashags, I saw it as a tool to send free texts to my friends. For my first year or so on Twitter, I only followed close friends, and only close friends followed me, so my tweets were mostly about arranging trips to the pub (I’ve since purged the internet of those mundane posts!). It was certainly social, but there wasn’t much of a network to speak of.
Facebook on the other hand, was a more ‘grown up’ version of Myspace that felt like a community (a retreat, even!) for those of us bored with animated backgrounds and obnoxious pop-songs on auto-play.
As time has gone on however, and more channels have emerged, with increasing numbers of users adopting them, the core purpose of each channel has evolved and their functionality has blurred.
With the evolution of status updates to open text (away from the rigid ‘Xenia is…’ format Facebook used to insist upon), users began microblogging on Facebook in the same way they once had on Twitter. But as Twitter grew and more companies and celebrities took to the channel, it too changed into something else – a forum for public conversations with brands and companies.
Then, as Facebook became more customisable, with cover photos and apps, it somehow started to resemble the Myspace of old.
Geo-tagging or ‘checking yourself in’ to places has also crossed channels, from Foursquare to Facebook, to Instagram and Twitter. Then Twitter let you upload photos and videos, Instagram also allowed videos to be posted, and now Facebook has not only enabled photos in comments, but has decided to incorporate hash tags – a technique that Twitter users have been adopting to categorise their posts for a number of years now.
So what does all this blurring of social media actually mean, and is there any real difference between channels anymore?
Twitter has, much to the chagrin of anyone who has ever experienced the backlash of ‘trolls’ or the annoyance of spam-bots, retained some semblance of anonymity. Users are still able to have pseudonyms and alternative identities – just ask Guido Fawkes.
But Facebook is, in many ways, the polar opposite – it contains a vast digital archive of identity and personal history. Graph search demonstrates this perfectly as it allows users to conduct highly specific searches using rich Facebook content (sometimes with amusing results).
It’s for this reason that brands are able to form lasting, personal relationships with consumers on Facebook – a highly attractive marketing proposition – whereas, arguably, those conversations on Twitter are more fleeting.
The recent introduction then, of searchable hashtags to Facebook is a particularly significant one. When it comes to Facebook, the hashtag is more than just a method for categorising posts – it gives implicit permission for the post to become publicly searchable.
This development – allowing highly personal content and conversations between friends to become part of a global search, is an interesting and significant one. By categorising their own data in this way, users will be helping advertisers to create more targeted and meaningful ads – essentially shaping their own experience.
As social media channels continue to evolve into a many-headed micro-blogging, geo-tagging, photo-sharing beast, users will increasingly be turned off by channels that don’t understand them, make use of the information they have made available and personalise content accordingly.