Showcasing your expertise through ebooks

Some posts by US marketer David Meerman Scott on free ebooks (i.e. books available in their entirety online , whether to be read online or printed), which he’s also written about in more detail in The new rules of viral marketing (itself an ebook), have got me convinced that organisations should be publishing a lot more of them. Not reams and reams: 15-30 pages is enough, nicely laid out both for reading online or if printed, and easy to read.

What’s the point? Like any publication, ebooks can showcase expertise. Done well, they can enable stakeholders to understand your position on a given issue – imperative for the array of companies, agencies, associations and pressure groups in Brussels – and perhaps even win them over. Or if you’re looking to win new business, prospects who have read a relevant and high-quality publication you’ve produced are more likely to trust that you’re capable of producing good work for them. And so on.

Expertise can be showcased in a number of ways, but ebooks have some great benefits:

  • Like any publication, they’ll always be available. Unlike books and reports however, they won’t gather dust on a shelf, but can be sent time and time again, be uploaded to any site anywhere by anyone, and be saved on social bookmarking sites so other users find them easily.
  • Unlike traditional publications, they’re free to publish (apart from the time to write them of course).
  • What’s more, they’re easy to publish – type it up, get someone to brush it up to look decent, and upload it.
  • As alluded to in the first point, they’re free and easy to distribute. Put download buttons on your site, send a link around – and if the content is good, it may go viral. David Meerman Scott’s ebooks have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times and he states that he’s never spent a penny on promoting them.

If you’d like to see what a few ebooks look like, take your pick from this list of ebooks on social media compiled by Chris Brogan, or wait until February, when an ebook I’m writing with ZN on online communications in Brussels should be available!

On multiple online platforms? Try Friendfeed

A post by US blogger par excellence Robert Scoble made me finally have a look at Friendfeed. It’s been fairly big across the pond for a while now, but no one seems to be talking about it in Europe. What it is is one aggregator that allows you to publish updates from all social media and social networking websites you’re active on in reverse chronological order via RSS.

I can see real value in Friendfeed for companies and other organisations in Brussels once they begin to become active in social media (I have high hopes for 2009). Say an organisation has a blog, publishes video interviews on YouTube, and pictures from events on Flickr, these can all be relayed via Friendfeed so people don’t have to go from place to place to see the content. Anyone interested can subscribe to the single feed rather than three, and a feed can be made available on the organisation’s website. Result? More people will find, view, and comment on your content.

Improving Blogactiv, the EU blog platform

Blogactiv is a blogging platform set up by EurActiv, Brussels’ foremost online news provider. On its homepage, Blogactiv states that: “complementing EurActiv’s independent and neutral coverage of EU Affairs, Blogactiv will become the premier source of content on the future of Europe”. I genuinely hope so. The lovely chaps behind Blogactiv deserve it, but more pertinently, having one platform that showcases the best that the European blogosphere has to offer is a very enticing proposition indeed. Done well, it will help readers search through the clutter, improve bloggers’ outreach, and facilitate dialogue across multiple blogs. However, there are a couple of things that I think they should develop.

1. They should focus on being an aggregator – i.e. allow people to write their blog on any platform, and at the flick of a switch, post the same content on Blogactiv as well – rather than be a platform where people create their blogs from scratch. This will help attract existing bloggers, those who prefer other platforms; or those who want their own URL, or want to be able to choose their own plugins (applications that allow users to add functionalities to their blogs – anything from a calendar, picture album, to a connection with Facebook or Google Maps). Take a look at Nosemonkey’s must read EU blogs Universe, and it’s clear that plenty of good blogs are being written on European themes and that these are not on Blogactiv. If it was really easy to connect to Blogactiv, and the bloggers in question could perceive added value in connecting, I’m sure most would. Eventually, the goal could even be for Blogactiv to be so popular that bloggers could connect by invitation only (or in the spirit of the web, if selected by fellow bloggers).

2. Blogactiv should have more traffic by now, given its favourable circumstances (namely, being linked to Euractiv, which has hundreds of thousands of visitors). In a recent entry, Nosemonkey mentioned that posting content on Blogactiv has not brought him much traffic. I had a similar experience: I set up a mirror of a client’s blog on Blogactiv, and only got about 10% of the traffic. Indeed, a quick look at compete.com (see image below) shows that traffic is pretty blogactivstatic at a few thousand, which spread over a number of blogs is not very much. How could the figures be improved? First and foremost, by having more high-quality content, and here, again, the aggregator approach could be key. Also, the EurActiv connection should be leveraged far more: good blog posts should link to relevant news stories on EurActiv and vice-versa (and to Blogactiv’s credit, they said at a recent lunch they hosted that this is in the pipeline); and I’d not insist so much on keeping EurActiv and Blogactiv separate – if I were EurActiv, I’d be loud and proud, and mention Blogactiv in all outgoing material (from newsletters to business cards).

A benchmark in transparency

efsa1

The European Food Safety Authority, an independent agency funded by the EU,  held its Management Board meeting yesterday, and allowed anyone to follow it via a live stream available from its homepage.

Sure, there are plenty of  “so whats?” Showing its meetings might just be a ploy to highlight its independence from the EU, and who know what takes place at other meetings. And food safety is probably not quite as contentious as other issues being discussed at a European level (CAP, finance, budgets, enlargement, security and so on). In any case, I was impressed that they made the effort – it’s not as if anyone was twisting their arm (I assume) – and hope it’s the start of a trend.

Trade associations should make more of their websites

Trade associations mainly serve their members by: 1. keeping them informed of developments in Brussels; and 2. lobbying and communicating on their behalf. Both these functions could be developed considerably through the smart use of online tools, even by the most cash-strapped association.

If you look at pretty much any Brussels-based trade association’s website, it’s immediately apparent that they’re not making the most of the tools at their disposal. I picked about 15 associations from Euractiv’s list of Euractors and looked at their sites, and apart from a few exceptions, they all use their sites to: present their mission statement, structure, board and secretariat staff; describe their industry/sector and activities; publish press releases; and promote their events and publications.

This is really a wasted opportunity. Here are three areas within which I think they should be adopting more web tools (measured against an association’s priorities and activities of course):

Publications Sites tend to have a list of publications and an order form, but more should be done to make the content accessible. If the publications are intended to be read by as many people as possible, but the association is not that interested in making money off them, all should be made available as eBooks that are easy to download and easy to forward. If the publications are meant to make money, I think they should be published on Google Books, where users can read but not download, allowing them to verify that the content and quality matches their expectations. This would not deter purchases: nobody would read a whole book online, and most buyers want these type of books for reference, available from a nearby book-shelf at their whim.

Events Most associations host events and yet their sites only tend to promote them and nothing much else. Where’s the integration? Following events, a lot more material should be made available and promoted (podcasts or videos of attendee interviews, presentations), and it should be really easy to spread. Getting this material isn’t difficult. A simple dictaphone or basic handheld camera is enough. Editing can be done for free (Audacity for audio only; Window Movie Maker for video), and hosting can be done on free web platforms like YouTube. What’s the point? It extends the lifespan of an event; it improves outreach and gives attendees a record of what they saw.

Plus seeing as associations place such value on events, I’m guessing they’d like to host more of them but can’t afford to. Why not move them online? One big annual conference and four smaller online events, with all the functionalities of a “real” event other than the coffee breaks (presentations, Q/A?). This is not expensive or difficult to set up, and could potentially attract more attendees than live events (no travel).

News Presumably, most associations have a newsletter, email updates, maybe some activity in members only areas that we can not see. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure they’d want to be doing more. I’m guessing many members feel daunted by anything emanating from Brussels, and the trade association’s role as a knowledgeable gatekeeper of news and other information is vital. What could they do? Very few trade associations use a blog to update members or anyone else who might be interested with material that is in the public domain, it seems. I think near-instant updates via a blog could be invaluable, much better than email updates, which get lost in cluttered inboxes, or newsletters, which require a certain number of articles. The advantage of blogging in this respect is that you can report just one story at a time, whenever you want, and all stories are stored in one place. And the blog can be short – “check out this really important document” (publicly available only of course); or longer – “we attended a hearing at the Parliament this afternoon. Points X, Y and Z were raised. We’ll be doing A and B”. And if members really want the news in their inboxes, they can subscribe to blog updates via email.

As for news aimed at the press, associations’ press rooms are usually very dull, containing little more than basic info and press releases. Far more could be done at little cost to both spruce up the content and improve reach. Like what? For starters, linking to other relevant stories on the web (a site should be a source for more relevant content than that which you write yourself), short video clips, easy bookmarking to make it easier for people to spread and find material, and RSS, so that users can request updates in a reader or via email. Some of these things, like enabling bookmarking and RSS, take minutes to set up and are free.

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Of course, online communications goes a lot further than this. There’s online monitoring, social media engagement, pay-per-click advertising, eCampaigning and so on. These tactics would probably be a step too far for most trade associations given their scope and resources, but they have no excuse for not taking advantage of a number of cheap and cheerful web tools that could really add value to their work and delight their members.

Selling social media

I just came across a good post from a few months back by Chris Brogan on selling social media internally. It’s marketing-focused but very relevant to all comms crowds – and I assume some people will find it interesting as I see from my site stats that my posts on selling digital to clients in PA are quite popular.

Two points stand out for me as particularly relevant as selling points to a PA crowd that is uncomfortable with social media:

  1. Internally, social media tools can be used to help with status information, training, project collaboration.
  2. Building an online social media component to most marketing and PR efforts ensures a better reach for the media created.

The point about using social media tools as an internal tool can, as Chris states, be helpful for a variety of processes. Even more importantly, it’s a lot less daunting and thus an easier sell when you say: “let’s try out this really basic tool internally (a blog perhaps?) and if we’re all comfortable with it after a few months, we can try it out on a relevant client project.” The second point is a great sell as well because it allows you to focus on regular media relations, which traditionalists of course value and feel comfortable with. So what you’re doing is not selling social media as something new and different, but as a set of tools that can add value to your traditional media relations by improving reach and quality e.g. a good 30 second YouTube interview with the person quoted in your press release .

Left trumps right in EU web initiatives

The Party of European Socialists’ brave and seemingly successful foray into the world of Web 2.0 with the Yourspace blog remains by far the most impressive web initiative I’ve seen by any European party or political group. Why is it so good? It’s a platform aimed at galvanising active supporters, not one where party bigwigs can strut their stuff: it gives them space to write and engage, and promises them something concrete in return – a chance to influence the content of the PES manifesto for the 2009 European elections. Result? Very Obama’esque: excited, active supporters, eager and able to help spread the PES mantra (aided by Yourspace’s multiple outreach channels e.g. a YouTube channel and very active Facebook Group).

The Socialist Group in the European Parliament (PSE) have not been quite as daring, but they do have a section on their site entitled Interactive which contains posts by PSE members, a portal of blogs by PSE members who do not write on the site itself, a forum, and a so-called citizen’s room where people can submit their opinions. The tools are all relevant and I’m especially impressed by this one line from their terms and conditions (assuming it’s true): “The Socialist Group interactive pages are an area for free expression. Only views that are ethically and legally unacceptable are excluded”. However, the section has been hidden away and is not properly introduced. For it to really work, the PSE should make a real splash, sell it on their homepage and in all their other outgoing communications, and explain why they’re doing it e.g. we want to speak directly to you, we need to know where we stand with you, like out parent party, the PES, we want to promote your ideas and concerns, not our own; and so on.

The site of the EPP-ED (the centre-right political group of the European Parliament) is far more static and dull. They present positions, latest press releases and members (Zzzzzz), while the only remotely innovative feature is the online “TV” channel. I did a search on YouTube, where the EEP-ED also have a channel,which appears to show the exact same footage even though there is no link between it and their site. It’s not bad, but I have some objections:

  • Why have the channel in two places? Seems like totally pointless duplication.
  • It’s all one way. Comments are allowed on both channels, but the moderators are obviously very strict. The only comment on the YouTube channel homepage itself reads “Just wanted to say that you’re doing really good job there” while none of the videos I saw had any comments (even where there were 100s of views). Same on the other channel: I had to look really hard to find one video with a couple of comments.

This approach seems to reflect the French Presidential elections last year, when Sarkozy’s campaign site became little more than a video vault, while Segolene Royal’s approach was far more inclusive. Sure, he won the election, but as Obama’s triumph last month showed, an approach which embraces the web as a tool of engagement and mobilisation, rather than just another one-way broadcast medium where you show yourself in your best light, can work wonders. In an era where the electorate demands a voice, politicians need to show that they’re listening and care; and the best start is to provide a platform where you allow people to openly engage and then actually respond.

Is the left more open to new tools and politics of engagement because it fits their political philosophy? To some extent I do think they are more comfortable with open engagement with constituents, but the main reason why the left on both sides of the pond has been quicker to adopt new tools is clearly born out of need, seeing as the centre-right has held power in the US and most European countries (and thus the EP) for a number of years. It’s a political reality that incumbents are less innovative: their approach won, they’re in power, so why change? In addition, the Conservatives in the UK have a new website which embraces blogging, integration with social networks, online donation, and supporter mobilisation features to the same degree as the Obama campaign did in the US, so it’s not as if parties of the right don’t have it in them. Despite the need to find some better supporters to populate the Show your support page than the current weirdoes on display, it’s really quite an impressive showing.

Selling digital to clients in PA: highlighting consistencies rather than differences

I came across an old post by Brian Haven entitled All media is Social which struck a chord. In short, Brian writes that the web could just be viewed as an extension of traditional communications interactions like sharing, connecting and broadcasting, but with greater reach, accessibility and immediacy.

Not rocket science, but it made me realise that a post I wrote on how to sell digital to clients in Public Affairs in Brussels probably prioritises the wrong elements. My premise is largely that a) communicating online is different; and b) although the lobbying vs. comms balance remains fairly skewed in favour of the former, it’s becoming less so as public perception is becoming increasingly important, and in many areas, the web is the most effective place to campaign to try to influence it. I still think these points are entirely valid, but Brian’s post has made me think that the best sell to more traditional prospects really should be that the web can be an extension of old-school communications, or in other words, that online tools can massively improve the extent, reach and quality of existing initiatives by complementing them and acting as an integrator.

Here are three simple practical examples where you can take a traditional PA tactic and improve or extend it using online tools:

  1. If you host an event, your pre and post event activity should be co-ordinated via the web, enabling you both to attract more attendees and keep the event relevant for longer than its actual duration. How? Before the event, promote it online as well as via your traditional offline channels; add a viral element to the event webpage or site to encourage people to forward it to people they know; engage attendees before the event via a survey or introduction video. After the event, show the presentations in webinar format (PowerPoint plus audio) on the event webpage or site; show video interviews with attendees; and again, include a viral element encouraging users to forward material so that people who missed it can see it or so that people who were there have a better record of it.
  2. To optimise your media relations, use a variety of web tools to make sure you’re providing journalists with the best possible material. If it can help improve a story, provide them with top-tier material in video or audio format (especially interviews) perhaps in a social media release. And as well as providing your own material, assimilate the best material available on the relevant subject matter available elsewhere on the web by hyperlinking to it via your online press page. Also, make it easy for journalists to be updated in near-real time by allowing them to subscribe to updates via RSS (or even Twitter).
  3. In addition to monitoring traditional news sources, use a dedicated social media monitoring service like Attentio (or even just some free services) to make sure you’re tracking everything that’s being written about the product, organisation, company etc. in question.

Ideally, once you’ve won them over by strengthening the reach and impact of their existing initiatives with simple tactics like these, you can begin to introduce more daring web initiatives (not for the sake of it of course: only if they fit into your broader strategy and you’re convinced they’ll work!)

Communicating the entire supply chain

This interesting point was raised at a meeting I recently attended: when people don’t think or know about the parts of a supply chain that come between between producer and end-user (or at least between producer and end-user but one in the case of retailers, as they are often in the public eye), this can be detrimental to the producer because all responsibility regarding their good or service falls onto them. What’s more, pressure groups understand this very well and are likely to always point the finger of blame at producers even when they know that fault lies elsewhere, because in campaigning terms, castigating the big boys works.

In some cases, the supply chain is pretty apparent, and responsibility is shared. Take for instance the automotive industry. The supply chain is manufacturer -> dealer -> buyer. In addition, at each part of the supply chain, regulations apply which everyone knows about. Governments play an important role in setting rules for manufacturers, dealers and drivers, meaning that manufacturers make safe cars, dealers don’t sell to anyone without a license or under 18 (or whatever), and drivers are expected to abide by the rules of the road. So if there’s an accident involving a BMW, most people would not blame BMW, but, say, a speed limit being too high or a driver being imprudent. With pharmaceuticals, everyone again knows the basic supply chain: pharma -> pharmacy -> end-user (via doctor’s prescription). Again, the rules are set in stone: governments set stringent standards, doctors are meant to know what to prescribe, and pharmacists know everything there is to know about the products. If someone takes 100 aspirins, nobody says it’s Bayer’s fault.

In some cases, however, the supply chain is more blurred, and the regulations governing it are not common knowledge. Take one industry which one of my clients represents, that of plant protection (pesticides). The supply chain is producer -> vendor -> farmer -> end-user. However, nobody really knows about the vendors, and farmers are thought of as purveyors of food, not pesticides.

Result? If consumers, say, should read that high levels of residues were found in apples somewhere, or that someone has been exposed to pesticides on a farm to the detriment of their health, most bypass the rest of the supply chain and think producers are to blame. Think what you want about pesticides in principle, but in these two hypotheses, producers can not be blamed. Perhaps it’s the vendor’s fault, as they usually don’t have the relative expertise of, for instance, pharmacists, and might not sell the right product; or perhaps the farmer is to blame, which is quite likely, considering that in many countries they aren’t required to be trained in using pesticides properly.

In terms of communications, what does this mean? That if you’re the producer and you’re taking a lot of stick for things involving your product or service that are occurring at some other point in the supply chain, your communications should highlight the entire supply chain:

  • At the basest level, it’ll make people understand that you’re not solely responsible for everything that takes place involving your product or service.
  • Once they’re in the limelight too, it’ll make other parts of the supply chain act more responsibly.

And most importantly, producers should also strongly and genuinely support the most stringent of standards for all parts of the supply chain, including themselves. Even better, they should actually help other parts of the supply chain abide by them. Why? Mainly because it’s the right thing to do. What’s more, if something does indeed go wrong that’s not your fault, you won’t be considered solely responsible, and might even be viewed as part of the solution for preventing it from happening again.

Free social media monitoring tools

When it comes to social media, everyone rightly talks about the importance of listening. The web is teeming with conversations about everything you can think of – and quite probably even your company, organisation, candidate, issue or brand –  and being fully aware and up to speed will help you shape your communications so that it responds to the trends, interests and concerns topping people’s agendas at any given moment. Luckily, you can now monitor most of what’s going on in social media with a vast array of free tools. Here’s a sample.

Blogs and microblogs

Google Blog Search and Technorati are the standard dedicated blog search engines. I prefer Google because  it tends to find more items, especially when searching for more obscure things. For more detail and graphs, I’d recommend Blogpulse and Trendpedia. Graphs don’t just look nice: having an illustrated timeline is useful to see if buzz has grown regularly since the launch of a campaign or if there’s a spike in activity around a launch or event etc. Serph should in theory be really useful because it takes into account social networking and social bookmarking sites such as Delicious, Stumbleupon and Digg, but I’ve not found it to be great. Premise is good though so maybe it’s just a question of time.

Microblogging is on the increase and Twitter is the platform of choice for most. Search tweets using Twitter Search, Tweet Scan, and Tweetag (had not heard of this one until this morning when James pointed it out – thanks). The advanced search on Twitter Search is especially useful as it allows you to search for people as well as search items and to narrow down location and time.

Forums, comments and groups

Search engines struggle with forums, so these dedicated forum search tools are very useful: Boardreader and Forum Discussion. Search engines struggle even more with comments than they do with forums, so Backtype, which scours comments, can be a very handy tool indeed. They’re a bit out of fashion now, but Google Groups and Yahoo! Groups still have an enormous number of daily users, so a search on both is always worthwhile, although most search findings are useless to be honest.

Search items

Google Trends shows how popular any given search term is. The measurement is not that precise, as it’s a percentage of total search traffic on Google, but nonetheless useful to see if more or fewer people have been searching for the term in question over a given period of time.

Not strictly social media monitoring

Digg, which allows users to rate webpages, is still going strong. It’s handy way of finding top stories, although less useful when looking for detail about more obscure items. Yahoo have launched Yahoo Buzz, which is a lot like Digg but not as good, so not an alternative yet, but it’s still in beta, so worth checking out at a later date. Both tools can be used for any webpage, not just social media.

It’s often quite useful to find out what sort of traffic is going to your site (or any other site of interest for that matter). QuantcastCompete, and Alexa help to give you some idea of what amount and type of traffic is going to any given site (although in-depth and additional services are not free, except for some on Quantcast).

Any others?

If anyone can think of a tool I’ve missed, please do let me know. Thanks.

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