Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Conversation - developing a digital strategy part 2

This is the second part of a story which is the synthesis of a number of recent conversations in contributing to thinking of PR strategies.

Mary T who has worked in PR for a generation, the client, represents a number of very talented people entering the realm of internet mediated public relations.

In the first conversation Mary T explained that she suspected that very soon she will be asked to present a plan for her company to rapidly move towards being involved in the wider aspects of online public relations.

We covered some of the aspects that worry a number of organisations only to discover that the organisation had already synthesised many of the issues surrounding digitisation of corporate function over the years. In many respects the issue was of bringing practices uptodate rather then creating new capabilities.

Concerns about outsourcing and passing some control to third parties was put into a wider coporrate strategy context.  

The nature of and implementation of effective internal communication did require some deeper considerations as a consequence of the ubiquity digital communication among employees as well as all other stakeholders.

Mary T’s intern was taking notes and creating a first draft of the Digital Strategy document, Mary would submit to the Board.

In the second conversation, we explored the fundamentals required for approaching the market.

Board Drivers

Mary knew that most of the impetus behind the Board asking for her opinions about the effect of social media on the company was driven by news that online retail sales in the United Kingdom increased 15% year on year in  September 2011. This was worth some £5.5 billion pounds (total retail sales were £31.9 billion). This was in contrast to high street sales which posted a sales increase of a miserly 0.3% according to the British Retail Consortium. The ripple effect throughout the supply chain was not missed on the Board.

The Board had also not missed that  in September 2011 computer information, royalties and license fees showed positive growth (and positive balance of payments)  for nine quarters with turnover growth of £468 million per quarter indicating that  internet based trade was in very positive territory.

Mary, who as a senior PR practitioner was both privy to, and knew only too well that these hard data drive Board thinking.

For a company which  manufactures and licences some manufacturing and sells to wholesale, retail and direct to consumers there is always pressure to focus on where the customers are.

Pretty obviously, the market place now includes an online element. In some instances, the internet has supplanted traditional markets. In other cases, there are new applications for traditional retail and wholesale sales and marketing activities ( Debenhams launched a home catalogue to boost online sales).

Fundamental marketing considerations

In principle, we are aware that selling can be direct to consumer, via a sales agent, retailer, wholesaler, subsidiary company, dealer, distributor. Over the years marketing management had exploited the optimum sales structures. Today, there are a range of regulations that also affect such decisions, not the least EU rules that apply (EU Vertical Agreements Block Exemption Regulation - and accompanying Guidelines).

In addition, there is a need to consider the nature of of Internet Transparency, Porosity and Agency as described by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations/Public Relations Consultants’ Association  Internet Commission (2000) when looking at the optimum sales channels.

To acquire markets and preserve margins there is a need to build trust in the retail chain from producer to consumer and beyond.

With abundant, internet mediated, information about the supply (and value) chain for every form of product and service, much of what an organisation does is evident, even visible to consumers and a very wide range of stakeholders and publics.

There are advantages in organisations being more transparent about products, services and practices. Such policies engender trust and commitment among consumers. Transparency, reports Investor’s Chronicle  is becoming more and more important and also a source of competitive advantage. Supported by a lot of research (from different sources such as Imperial College to PWC), there is significant evidence suggesting strategic adoption of transparency practices is a good thing.

In practice, what this means is that product service and price is discussed by external stakeholders over which the organisation has no control but which is influenced by trusted sources and in turn offers trust across the network.

The inevitable result is that radical transparency (exposing ever more information) has its limitations (see Phillips & Young). and there are consequences. Does the organisation want to expose its supply chain, pricing and other information to all stakeholders including competition? If such information is available will it undermine specification and price differentials that are the lifeblood for success of  agents, dealers, distributors and sales subsidiaries?

Mary could synthesis this into strategy in which the Board would need the company to develop capabilities to explicate procurement, production, distribution and pricing practices to the satisfaction of stakeholders, for example customers, prospects and the people and institutions that influence them, notably online. That is not to say that such considerations need undermine specification considerations or price but they need to be managed for optimum (not maximum) effect. We realise this is quite a complex concept for most managers.

In turn such considerations may affect the sales structure strategies acceptable to both Board and consumer. The public relations recommendation to the Board will invite the marketing managers to take a fundamental approach to the evolution of marketing development based on acceptable levels of transparency to provide volume, margins and an atmosphere among consumers that will engender greater trust.

The transparent organisation

The simple idea that any one and everyone can, but do not necessarily (do they have an issue that creates such interest?),  follow everything that the company is and does online means that the organisation has to make an assumption that every stakeholder and every interested person and group is watching and potentially contributing to company information.

This has significant consequences for the company brand. The brand values given to an organisation spring from what the company represents.

The Vision, Values and Mission of the organisations have to be intellectually honest and clear. If not, with so many potential interested parties and multiplicity of stakeholder agenda’s,  they  will provide an opportunity for third party interpretation leading to diversion and obfuscation.  The Vision, Values and Mission are corporate brand attributes at the heart of every living organisation.

Here Mary could relate to the demands of the marketing managers. They too need this framework for product and brand management.

Marketers instinctively know that  other forms of branding need to be as robust and need to be burnished to ensure that all online (and offline) activity is focused on the single corporate brand concept. Perhaps one needs to go no further than the Forbes article by Jeremiah Owyang, “Greenpeace Vs. Brands: Social Media Attacks To Continue”. It show just how vulnerable organisations can be and the extent to which corporate values need to be thought through.

In addition, with 87% of respondents to a recent survey claiming that positive information they read online has reinforced their decision to buy a product or service that was recommended to them, online reputation is becoming important. Between 2010 and 2011 showed a change in how negative buzz affects consumer buying decisions. In 2011, 80% of respondents (up from 68% in 2010) stated that negative information they read online has made them change their minds about purchasing a product or service that was recommended to them.

The reputation of an organisation online needs to be part of the digital strategy consideration.For the head of public relations this was helpful because it showed the link between reputation and online strategy and why is was so significant.

Organisation are visible in many ways. The shop front pictured in Picasa or Facebook perhaps demonstrates the extent to which traditional and digital are interlocked across so many media. Brand management on and offline needs to be cherished.

The extent to which Board members and employees are exposed online is another consideration. While it is often in the interest of an organisation to enjoy the exposure and public commitment of employees in, lets say, social media such transparency brings with it corporate responsibility to support such employees and their circle from those who would do them harm on and off line as a consequence - forever.

As with people, so too with corporate assets.

This, conceptually, is not new. Organisations have traditionally used security services, some in-house and some contracted, to provide security. Strategically this needs to be extended in the digital age as an element of Corporate Responsibility.

Shop windows

As our discussions develop we discover that there are a lot of touch points for all stakeholders. With so much happening in so many places, it is probably a good idea to think of each as a company shop window, or at least a smart reception.

Of course, on each visit occasion the organisation will want to impress the visitor.

In addition, the company will want to prompt the visitor (or employee) to ‘do something’. In the parlance of the web we are looking for ‘conversion’.

Its a horrid expression based on the need for advertisers to get people to website and ‘convert’ the visit into a sale.

Very few visitors ‘convert’. The best sites only achieve low percentages but it is very importnat for managing interactions with online stakeholders. It forms the basis for evaluation.

For an organisation there may be other forms of ‘conversion’ that are almost as valuable as a sale. A conversion that prompts a prospective employee to apply for job, an investor to buy shares or a vendor to offer great service are all valuable ‘conversions’.

More prosaically, no visit should leave the person contacting the organisation untouched. Here then, is a simple way of describing what digital interactions across the organisation should achieve.


The Website is a key shop window. It is not the only one but it is critical.

It is not just a shop window.It is also the means by which investors, prospective employees, vendors, regulators and many other stakeholders find the organisation. Two publics that may not visit this important location very often are the Board and employees. Just asking around we find that it‘s easy to ignore if you are an insider.

Websites are really important and considerable research as well as expertise is helpful when building them. Creating web sites for a range of stakeholders can be cluttered or complicated or both what is probably more important is that the site is designed for users and not the by the organisation.  There may be user responses that will indicate that more than one website is needed or even optimal. Equally, the organisation may have a lot of sites that have been created over the years and which need to be rationalised. Most organisations have some unloved websites out there that need to be looked at.

There are a number of other sites where there is a need for pro-active design activity. The Facebook page, YouTube Channel and many others will need close attention.

It will come as no surprise to find the company has dozens of presences in LinkedIn and Google+.

Research to find out what is needed on sites, who owns them and what will be effective is important.

For standard web sites there are elements that will  include
  • Usability testing

Test with real users
  • Persona creation

For key audience groups and their goals & needs
  • Eye tracking

Showing what users do & don't look at on your website or marketing emails
  • Card sorting

To help site map structured around the way users think
  • User interviews & contextual enquiry

This provides valuable feed back before going live
  • Focus group research

Is there to maintain the relevance of the website for users and helps ind out what people want from the website & how they want it to work
  • Accessibility testing

To see first-hand the problems blind & disabled users have on your website

Many such considerations apply to thirdparty sites like YouTube.

The cost of building a web site is probably as mach as reception at the corporate headquarters or the flagship store.

Clear and simple navigation is critical but creating websites that are optimised to help search engines prioritise the organisation's site over competition is critical.

In some instances simple aids to search engine optimisation are easy. There is no good reason to have a lot of website real estate devoted to the history of the company and biographies of its senior staff. Much better that it has the imprimatur of Wikipedia and the inlinks that contribute to SEO.

Professional help is going to be needed an the ‘make or buy’ decision here points towards ‘buy’.


Mary uses email all the time. Morning noon and night her smart phone is firing emails into the ether. It just did  not occur to her that  email could be made much more powerful in building reputation and relationships.

Every manager, employee, supplier, agency, production department, retail outlet, consumer and past customer will use email. An organisation that is really good at using email will enhance its reputation on every contact.

Research, training and structure in the use and application of email will ensure that every employee will be become an ambassador. While there may be TV advertising, or some other block busting method of promotion, at some point most stakeholders will want to resort to email for contact with the organisation. Making the whole experience easy and welcoming affects the bottom line like little else.

Email is also a really big and useful capability to attract stakeholders including prospective customers. Email marketing is a very useful tool.

Email is also one of the top means by which visitors arrive at specific pages on a website.

There is a case for the organisation to schedule time and investment into optimising email for more potent effect.


The majority of consumers start their product searches at Google (69%) even if they know the URL and are regular visitors. In addition, Google very often provides the location or navigation to the store or off-line consumer required location.

This means that search engine optimisation is a very high priority.

For the public relations person SEO is a wonderland.

To ensure that all content (words, images, video, voice and music) has key values embedded is an absolute must.

Being sure that hyperlinks are added that link back to the organisations web sites is really important and this applies as much to news stories, case studies, application features, references in media features as well as whitepapers and briefing documents.

Indeed, the more of such content is made available of the organisation‘s site, but more significantly the web sites of other organisations.  Sites such as Twitter, Facebook, newspapers, YouTube, discussion lists and wikis.

They all contribute to the key values of the organisation pointing to its web site and drawing people with values in common or need satisfaction.

Words in content and in context, tags, labels and similar are all part of this process.

As a strategy to be deployed across the organisation in every discourse (yes, even email) this is important and it has to be deployed sensibly. It is possible to be very proscriptive, tiresome and boring. This is actually an opportunity for creative content development to keep values alive, fresh and interesting to both people and Google.

Creating properties to help the process can of many kinds and offer multiple advantages.

A recent research report developed by TriComB2B and the University of Dayton School of Business Administration provides insight into the B2B purchasers’ decision making process.
Key findings from the benchmark report, for B2B search engine marketers to consider, include:
  • Content assets, ranging from B2B blogs through technical data sheets, are critical in the B2B buying process.
  • The source of information was most important in the search and evaluation stages of the decision process.
  • Mobile websites, discussion forums, and blogs are important information sources for purchasing decisions

Online Advertising

Anja Lambrecht at The London Business School has done a lot of very good research including her paper ‘Reaching online consumers: The right ad at the right moment’ which shows that getting the best effect does require both research and dedicated expertise.

Online advertising has many forms and the Internet Advertising Bureau  is  a great place to start to find it.

There is a tendency to imagine that advertising as being about a product or service but such is the nature of the internet that  online advertising can be used in a much more versatile applications.
Taking online users to a case study using advertising seemed strange for Mary’s media officer but the idea that a case study may be shared by the readers, blogged about and mentioned in Twitter and even gather a crowd of followers in Facebook only shows how valuable some online content can be especially as its every iteration may well add to the SEO of the company web site. Advertsing a case study... well yes.

Advertising an app, video or other property may well be valuable.

Strategically, the organisation may now want to consider advertising in a much more flexible light.

They key here is to have objective withing a time period that will deliver the ‘conversions’ for a given amount of effort time and cost (sometimes called, suggested Mary, ROI).

In conclusion

Mary T and her team were itching to get to all that glamorous Social Media stuff but could see that long before we think about a single tweet or post,there are some really important components that need t be in place first.

A great Twitter campaign that delivered users to a rubbish web site would still be a great campaign but would do very little for the reputation of the company or its Board.

Next time in reflecting on the conversations with Mary and her team and the notes here intern is preparing ready for the Board strategy paper we will be able to look at interesting aspects of social media.