BeTwixt by Twitter No More: Quick Start Guide For Small Businesses

By 2012, I resolved to finally land on Twitterverse. Bring on the 140 characters. Hashtags. Retweets. Followers. For all my marketing and small business swagger, I was not using Twitter. Shame, shame, right? I knew that I needed to engage on Twitter, was intrigued, but nevertheless put it off.  Now that I’m officially Twitterfied, these are the quickstart rules I learned, not by reading but by doing:

1) Don’t forget your homework: This may seem obvious but it’s surprising how few bother to read what friends and colleagues tweet and who they follow. Also, go through your mind’s Rolodex, what businesses and columnists you “like” on media outlets, Facebook, LinkedIn contacts, what mags you receive via email. But be wary of following too many people initially and also remember that your Twitter page can be seen by anyone. If you are following @SPANX, everyone else can see it too.

2) Don’t get hung up on being “perfect” when you begin: One reason I delayed Twitter was that I fell prey to all the hype. It had to be the best Twitter account everrr. I consulted with my social media guru, talked about it, asked all kinds of questions, but never took action. Get your handle, (which should either be your own name or your business name, whichever will have more recognition), fill out a quick profile and get yourself tweeting! You can change anything at anytime. Don’t let perfection be an excuse to procrastinate.

3)  Size matters – only follow the accounts you care about: I found myself incredibly popular on the first evening I joined in the Twitter conversation until I noticed roughly half were either spam, services looking for business, or “hot high school girls” from the Midwest. Go through the tweets of each handle that follows you. How many followers do they have? (Hint: If they have no tweets, don’t follow them back). I quickly learned the unspoken rule of reciprocity: You follow me and I follow you. But don’t expect everyone to do the same. If you are truly interested in someone’s content, stay with it.  Remember that others in the Twitterverse can see who you are following and likewise, so it’s a public forum and frankly a bit of a numbers game. And the more handles you follow, the larger the gap, particularly in your Twitter start-up days. In other words, you could have a slim 50 followers and be following a fat 500. Playing catch up can be a challenge.

4) Make your mark on retweets:  Just because you retweet content doesn’t mean it’s simply a pay-it-forward or to bank your tweets. Add a fact or commentary at the beginning, that will attract attention, show your point of view, and add value for your followers. It also provides the opportunity for whoever you retweeted to follow you back.

5) Get unruly with the Twitter “rules”: Some experts say you should tweet seven times a day, refrain from tweeting at 8am or 8pm or use the word “ahmazing” (OK, I’m making the last one up but it really should be banned). As social media evolves, any rules or guidelines that exist might not stand tomorrow, so make your own based on the type of business you have and what your marketing goals are. That’s not to say you shouldn’t read up on tips and tricks-you should. My personal guideline is to  tweet at least once a day and even more if there is something really stellar  (or strategically save it for the next day as back up). Some days I don’t see anything worth tweeting so I refrain. Better to have quality than a tweeters dozen — people will stop reading if they are constantly deluged with useless ones (I’ve unfollowed a few handles because of this). Something else:  Even though I joined Twitter for my business, I like to throw in entertaining bits or something that reveals character, humor, or my interests. But don’t do anything so far out there that it could be construed as offensive or racy. You might consider having a second handle for your personal interests, say cooking or soccer, or something more edgy so that you can reach a different audience.

6) Participate in the conversation: Read what others are saying and reply and comment. This will not only get you more enmeshed into the Twitterverse, it will also help gain new followers and potential interests. Don’t overdo it though, just to get your handle out there. And be wise — once you say something anywhere on Twitter, be it a tweet, retweet or reply, it’s there forever. You can delete your own tweets on your page, but they’re already in Twitterville.

7) Writing rules still apply: edit, edit, edit:  I can’t imagine putting out my blog after one revision, and Twitter is no different. Don’t rush your tweet. Make sure it’s as tight as possible (the 140 character rule will also help keep you finely tuned) Think about what and how you want to say it. Don’t waste words, abbreviate where it makes sense, and make sure you use the Twitter URL shortener. Check spelling. I’ve already gotten dinged by this a few times. When you use a hashtag, make sure it makes sense and don’t put too many hashtags or try to be overly clever like #OMGsodumb, which ends up being, well, dumb.

8) Put on your own marketing hat:  There are many ways to promote and cross-promote your Twitter account. Link it with your Facebook business or personal page, Linkedin, blog, and other social media outlets you are on. Don’t forget to add it to your email signature, business card (if you’re still printing one) and anywhere else you can identify your business and handle. Any opportunity available, bring Twitter along!

9) Set long-term goals:  There are many reasons for a small business to be on Twitter, be it to offer discounts to customers, build thought leadership, gain new business, or challenge/intrigue your followers. Whatever you do, make sure your tweets align with those objectives and stay focused for the long haul. Be patient — it can take a long time to reach high numbers of followers. Growing your business is a process, and Twitter is just a part of that.

10) This concludes 140… seconds: The rest is up to you. As you get more experienced, you can add bells and whistles, fine tune your content, and track your social analytics to see what is working and what is not. But the most important thing is to get on Twitter. Period. Like most things, the anticipation is scarier than the outcome. And you might actually enjoy it like I am!

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So What’s So Wrong About Product Placement in Films? The Good, The Brand, and the Ugly

I was half-watching “Kindergarten Cop” at my gym last week. Rest assured I was a captive audience as it was  the only thing on the TV. One of the scenes is Arnold Schwarzenegger taking a plane – Alaska Airlines to be exact – just shown long enough to see and short enough not to think why this is still on the screen. This was 1990, but a blip in the radar of movies with commercial product. Flash-forward to 2011.

With product placement and tie-ins around for decades and firmly woven into the TV and film landscape, Morgan Spurlock of “Supersize Me” fame takes on this sticky issue in a satirical yet serious way in “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”, a documentary within a documentary  (or “docu-buster” as he calls it). The film chronicles his quest to get “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” financed by brand sponsorships. Spurlock sews together an engaging, satirical look at how Hollywood and Madison Avenue not only share a bed, but openly exchange bodily fluids.  It’s an entertaining documentary tucked inside a marketing lesson.

As provocative and interesting as Spurlock’s film is, it might have advanced past marketing 101 to explore how brands, whether we like it or not, give a film part of its storytelling cred.  While the presumption that there is something sleazy and inartistic about brands and film merging, Spurlock only scratches the surface of how potent this combination can be used with today’s sophisticated, over-materialized consumers.

Don’t get me wrong, the film is a must-see to understand how movies and marketing morph together in the back office bankrolling of Hollywood. It cleverly cuts between Spurlock’s narration, interviews with cultural luminaries and film makers, sponsorship “sell” meetings with company execs, snippets of product placement in pop culture, and of course shameless plugs of sponsored brands such as POM, Hyatt, Sheetz, and, yes, Mane N Tail – the only shampoo for horses and humans (about which he constantly pokes fun). Spurlock reminds us of what we are all painfully aware of – the ubiquitity of branding in film and the increasingly blurry line with crass commercialism. The takeaway from the film: the all-mighty branding dollar reigns supreme in Hollywood movie making.

And this is where we get back to brands and their impact in a film narrative. What Spurlock doesn’t discuss is how products and lifestyle brands provide an instant, rich telegraphing of place, time, and status in film. In other words, the branding adds flavor, spice, color, and real-life.

Gone are the days of a can with “Beer” written on it in block letters. Filmmakers must include actual products to resonate with today’s viewer for an instant “got it”.  The question remains of which product and why (insert dollar signs here).  To connote a home without much money, there would much likelier be a Sharp 20″ TV with rabbit ears than a Samsung 80″ theater-style one. Likewise, James Bond would not be driving a Hyundai. Nor would Clark Kent wear an Armani suit. Thus, the brand becomes part of the story.

The fact is, companies and consumers alike are hyper-aware of how brands create personality, tone and place, whether it be a film, book, or pop culture art. Likewise, the shoes we wear on our feet, the car we drive, the food we consume, and every other decision we make on how to spend our money on “stuff” – consciously or unconsciously – not only tell the world who we are but who we want the world to think we are.

One of the most enlightening parts of  “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” is when Spurlock goes to an agency to get his “brand personality” analyzed for the appropriate sponsorships for the film – as if he were a product being primed for the grocery store, shopping mall, or online. We follow him through the process as he is grilled with hundreds of questions by branding experts to hone in on the essence of Spurlock.  Turns out he is “playful” and “mindful” among other descriptors as his personal brand-therefore outlier-types such as Mini, POM, Target, and JetBlue are a good match. Not so much for Guess or Cadillac.

Spurlock concludes in his film that branding, money and co-sponsorships in films are here to stay and will only get more entrenched as time goes on. That may be true, but using this fact to its full potential is what it’s all about. Blockbuster film-makers and indies have different priorities when making a film: For Big Hollywood it is all about the green. For indies it is about making good films first. But rest assured both will seriously evaluate what brand of TV to place in a working class family’s home and a millionaire’s mock French château.

DIY Design: The Death of Creativity?

Perhaps you’ve done it already: design a product on a web site yourself using a configurator. And then pay for it. Then it’s shipped to you. And you hopefully enjoy it. This new level of customized product development and selling  — no marketing required — has mushroomed to unseen levels with the growing capabilities and sophistication of online retailing.

We’ve seen mass customization before in the offline and online worlds. For instance, when buying a custom home (get it? custom) or a tract home with “options” and other big ticket items like personal computers or cars – but they have their limitations. And certainly making your own T-shirts, mugs and the like has been around forever. But with the explosion of online retailing, never before have so many products available to customize: from simpler items like designing your own jeans (bell bottoms anyone?) to creating an entire room of custom furniture. We can decide the material, colors, finishes  and a plethora of other choices with the click of a button, a mere hope, preference or coincidence before.

If you haven’t seen this new DIY design trend, here are some examples. And these are just some of the hundreds of web sites one can go these days to make  exactly what we want.

http://bspurses.com/our-collection/purses/

http://www.thomasville.com/Design-Your-Own/

http://www.dressbydesign.com/

When one thinks about this idea of consumers purchasing precisely what they envisioned, it is the golden ticket for a sale. We  should —  theoretically — be elated with the purchase (maybe not the price since we will pay more for this customization) but  it is made-to-order in its truest form. And while DIY design can be very enticing to people who know exactly what they want, it is not ideal for the consumer with a fuzzy idea of what they want and are moved through the sales cycle by information gathering, inspiration and desire.

I then started mulling over this designed-by-me concept and it seemed to bring up some important questions about the shopping, evaluating and buying experience that we might not even realize on first blush. For instance:

Where Art Thou Thrill of the Kill?  If I am designing my own product, I will surely love it, but there will be none of the joy or excitement in discovering such a “find”. How many times have we been with friends or by yourself and been looking for the “perfect” something, only to find it at some rare shop or a place we normally shop slashed 50 percent off? How great is that?! (Truth be told women probably get this “feeling” more than men) What makes that moment so special too is that we found something we wanted  – an essential part of the buying and long-term valuation process.

Where art thou Creativity?  What does this mean for product development and design (and conversely for marketers) when they are pushing the concept of DIY and that’s it. DIY design also deletes the strategy and planning (and fun) for the professionals who design products (not to mention potentially deleting their jobs as well). Sure they can provide the pieces to choose from, but there are no finished creations. just a mish mash of checks and stripes and squares as it were. And this is sad for industry in some way. It creates a production-driven environment that is dictated by parts of the whole.

Where Art Thou Future?  This all got me wondering too…What about other kinds of products we can create. What if I like an artist’s style, for instance.  Can I take certain colors, styles and images and blob them together to create a Keith Haringesque mural for my own pleasure?Or Monet? And if I’ve done it myself, is it really art or more of a paint-by-numbers product? Part of the mystery and joy of life is surprise, passion, desire…we don’t know where we will find it on the open marketplace. 

And don’t get me wrong, I could very much enjoy a clutch purse I myself designed of yellow leather with zebra pattern and silver-plated handle and also claim bragging rights if anyone likes it (“Why yes, I designed it myself”)

But I also know my creation was not very…creative.


Online Event Technology Cannot Trump Human Connection

For many corporations, online event technology has bridged the gap between time, distance, culture to reach their prospects and customers. These advances help marketers reach audiences across the street and across the globe quickly and efficiently.

The beginnings of online events in the late-1990s consisted of webinars (also known as eSeminars) and web casts, straightforward attempts to port the live experience to the computer. They haven’t changed much over the years and are still used by many companies to launch products, educate consumers, soften PR problems and more.

The significant changes in online events are the dazzling technologies such as telepresence meetings and virtual events – marketers now have even more choices with these newer, sexier showcases to swap out with their less flashy cohorts. The result? With a mix of the webinars and newer online events, some companies are cutting trade shows, seminars and other in-person events altogether – that is a mistake.

The argument for leaving live events off the roster has been made for some smaller, nimble web-based companies in these times of shrinking budgets and growing computer sophistication among attendees. Add to that shorter times to execute webinars at less cost and with fewer resources and that decision can make financial sense for them. 

But for the majority of companies now reslicing the event pie, it is a myopic view to cut live events altogether.  As much as in-person events are given a bad rap for bloated budgets, unnecessary fluffery and fuzzy ROI, online events also have their inherent disadvantages of hollowness, distracted attendees, occasional breakdowns in technology, and lack of feedback. Though there are certainly online event ROI tools to measure activity and clicks, how does one value metrics for the human connection – that  elusive “X” factor?  This may be the speed bump on the cyberhighway we are ramming over. There is a completely different psychology, awareness level and interaction that takes place face-to-face human exchange that online communication can never replace.

If we look closer at online events, they have four basic outcomes, from least desireable to most:  1) Cancellation  –  Since the commitment is low and they likely didn’t pay 2) Inattention – The person could also be filing their nails or having a conversation with their cube mate (ironically, I recently received a webinar invitation to “How to engage multitasking webinar audiences.”) 3) Paying Attention – Asking questions of the presenters, responding to event surveys, wanting more information  4) Ready to Buy – The person wants a salesperson to call or is ready to click and buy –this of course is the best outcome, live or not.

Contrast these actions with a live interaction at  a trade show, conference or networking party. The result could be the same but could also be changed real-time: There may be the opportunity for  conversation and extended discussion, read the person’s body language and facial expressions, answer questions, and even change their opinions and buying objections. Add to that some peppering of personal discussion of  common colleagues and interests and you have a real engagement. This face-to-face encounter cannot be seen, heard or felt online at any more than a superficial level – a cyberspace click — if at all. 

This is just one example to consider. What about the annual user conference that suddenly goes online? How will that affect your customers and their perception of its importance to your company?  Or the one trade show you exhibited at every year that you are now absent from? Ultimately these types of business decisions will be based on your goals, target audience, and perhaps most importantly, budget. But when evaluating what events to add, remove, and replace in your events mix, take a close look at how interacting live verses cyberspace will matter, or not. This factor may not be calculated into the equation. 

And make no mistake – quantifying and persuading management that human encounters are worth the cost can be difficult. Analyzing the hard numbers, online events will always win out as more attractive cost-per-lead, but the intangible benefits of live interaction may not be able to be measured long-term. Online events, strategically used in conjunction with live ones, keep just the right distance and closeness with your prospects and customers.

This Ole Apple Tree Has Turned Into A Corporate Orchard

More and more as I look at the Apple computer advertisements over the past few years, I’ve wondered…are Apple and Microsoft really THAT different? You know, the nerdy  PC guy who tries to fend off a variety of PC system and aesthetics criticism from the chillaxin’ Apple guy? Sure, the companies have different roots, product offerings, technology, and most importantly perhaps, brand images, but recently I’ve pondered  if the dweeby Microsoft guy and laid back, clever-than-thou Apple guy could share a mouse, or at least a cab.

No doubt, it’s a smart, engaging strategy to personify and pit the PC’s Evil Empire against the Cool Understated Company (and damage every other PC maker with Windows in the process), but aside from the computer market , which Apple will realistically continue to undersell Microsoft, Apple has expanded its product lines to be a hugely successful consumer electronics company with brand recognition that matches and even exceeds Coca Cola, Nike or dare I say the American Flag. Apple may not have achieved computing domination, but it has succeeded branding intimidation – You can’t touch this.

They are also a mega-corporation that would read like many companies of today: layers of bureaucracy, stock backdating charges, questionable practices with competitors, and publicity misfires. So it’s safe to say the days of the little company that could  are over. 

And before anyone hurls rotten apples at me, I, myself, have prayed at the Church of Apple Faithful for years, but that doesn’t mean I can’t “think different” about them either (get it?). My nostalgic feelings for Apple go back to my college days: firing up my  box-shaped, latte-colored Macintosh in News Reporting I class – No PCs with their  complicated DOS, awkward interface and ugly looks. Mac was intuitive, a cinch to operate, WYSIWYG. So I fell in love and didn’t even know I was in the midst of a collective, exuberant loyal base of users helping to catapult one of the most powerful brands in the world. Over the years, my Macs have grown up with me as I made more money and pined for the latest and greatest Apple technology. And my loyalty runs deep:  I’ve argued with corporate IT to keep my Mac, been rejected by many  a software programs, can’t navigate on certain web sites (I still bill one of my clients on a library PC). But here I am typing away on it – because I love my Mac and  always will.

And many others have caught on to the Mac’s charm over the years. The core Mac base of graphics and design individuals and agencies has fanned out to  smaller, edgier companies, independent sorts, curious folks wanting to see what all the fuss is about, and Apple’s computer market share is starting to catch on – at least a bit. But really with their other products creating reams of revenue, how important will that be in the long run?  

Witness iPod: It revolutionized how we listened to music even though it may have not been the first or best MP3 player on the block, just the best designed and marketed (Zune and Sansa never had a chance). Add to that Apple’s number #1 music buying business, iTunes, and that one’s in the bag too. But wait… there’s more: the wildly successful iPhone that is embraced by the masses, loved by phone retailers, and obsessed over by application developers (“Curb Your Enthusiasm” had a bit  last season about George from “Seinfeld” developing the iToilet application that lets you know the closest clean bathroom – the reality cannot be too far behind). I’m not so sure about the recent launch of iPad (kind of obvious but seems to me no research was done on name? ya think?).

But back to Seinfeld – seems like the ad pummeling from Apple finally spurned Microsoft to start a wave of responses to their enemy. The first attempt using Jerry Seinfeld to pump up Microsoft and Vista in an offbeat way were a failure. People just didn’t get it. More successfully, the “I’m a PC” series with consumers rejecting Macs with comments like: “really nice but too expensive”, “I’m not cool enough for a Mac”, “They are based on looks”. Ouch – all those unsaid things Mac-haters said out loud.

And the Windows 7 release sparked another round of punches from both sides (Apple smartly and not surprisingly first). Though Microsoft was prepared with a Windows 7 campaign, it went back ten steps when they recalled the  “Family Guy” Windows 7 campaign a few days after it started as being “inconsistent”  with the Microsoft brand.  Apparently Bill never watched this ribald show before he gave the nod to the campaign.

Apple, 2 . Microsoft, 1. And the beat goes on.

So when all is said and done…it comes down to the one question I asked myself:  are Apple and Microsoft really that different? Yes they are..but. Clearly Apple has better technology, superior design, and more clever, consistent advertising and branding. But they are similar in one, very important way: Lil old underdog Apple is finally and securely on the same playing field as the Evil Empire now – if not an even better position. They are both large corporations with the resources to throw at marketing – whether successfully or unsuccessfully. And I, loyal Apple customer, will continue to buy my computers, iPods and sure enough iPhone from them, but make no mistake, I know I am buying from one of America’s biggest most successful companies, not the underdog I knew in college.