“Awareness is not influence” – yet sometimes it is

Marketing, communications and campaigning 101 tells us that awareness is only a first step preceding things like “influence” and “action”. This makes sense. If the end goal is to sell something or win an election, for instance, awareness is only relevant in that it helps to subsequently drive the relevant action (purchasing or voting, in this case.)

Marketers have forever needed to prove what comes beyond awareness. Their various sales funnels display how a prospect or customer should be made aware and then driven to purchase (and keep purchasing).

In corporate communications, our end goal is less tangible. It’s often “reputation” which is not as clear-cut as sales. Until recently, we weren’t expected to measure anything much except perhaps vanity metrics like clippings, social media followers or website hits. Hence why marketers scoff at how vacuous we are.

In public affairs, the corporate communications discipline I know best, where the end goal is affecting legislation, there was even less impetus to measure anything of value.

Change is afoot. Methods for measuring reputation are becoming ubiquitous. Single audience corporate communications disciplines like public affairs and investor relations are especially easy to tie to an end goal: regulation and investment respectively. Meanwhile, purse strings are being tightened and procurement folk are demanding proof of impact. Showing real business value through smart measurement beyond awareness is becoming the norm in corporate communications.

Overall, this is a good thing. It’ll make communications output more effective and communicators more accountable. And it should help keep communications charlatans / snake oil peddlers out of work.

And yet. Purists will scoff but there are times where there can be major, intangible value in un-measurable communication.

There are countless companies, whose products are contentious, that have damaging regulation imposed on them and lose their license to operate to varying degrees because they are quiet on their issues. Sometimes they deserve what they get because their products are disagreeable (polluting, unhealthy etc.) Sometimes the scrutiny helps them improve business practices and even discontinue the nasties. Clearly, this is a good thing.

Sometimes, issues are more nuanced. Think GMOs or certain chemicals. Yet because of a culture of reticence or fear of litigation, producers have communicated very little and allowed the media and public narrative to be shaped purely by opponents. There is no notion that there is any grey area; silence is equated with an admission of guilt.

Were they to be loud and proud, such companies would engender some level of legitimacy merely through communicating. In a way, what they say matters little. Behavioural science is at play more than message. Recipients are likely to think that the mere fact that a company is willing to communicate may mean they have less to hide. It may not win people over immediately. It may not lead to an immediate rational “action” in a customer journey map. But it might generate grey area where there previously was none. Which in turn might make regulators who are on the fence explore the issue more deeply. It may make a company less likely to be top of an activist’s target list as that they’d likely fight back. In short, it may help it avoid overly damaging regulation, possibly years down the line.

In an age of measurement mania, selling something this vague is tricky. But we should not entirely discount the value of communications that is not immediately measurable.

Another overstated business truism: unpopular industries are highly vulnerable to social media

Social media poses a threat to to unpopular industries and companies, so the cliché reads. Supposedly, the social media nous of activists, the fast spread of criticism, in parallel with growing popular concerns over corporate conduct and calls for greater transparency, makes companies on the wrong side of the public debate highly vulnerable.

True. Companies have taken a hit after being targeted by campaigns that have spread far and wide in part thanks to social media. Think Shell and Arctic exploration: drilling was abandoned last year. Or Nestle and palm oil. Or Starbucks and tax. These campaigns are amplified by the nature of the modern news cycle. In that there isn’t one: you can’t kill a story that lingers on Google and keeps garnering social shares. No doubt lots of companies have felt compelled to improve business practices to avoid being attacked. Which is a good thing, clearly.

But the cliché is a tad overstated.

It ignores the fact that unpopular industries and companies can themselves use social media, and other online tactics, like data analysis and content marketing, to their benefit. They can use them to identify risks, manage issues and crises, help deliver their side of their story, rebut inaccuracies and showcase transparency and general good-will.

Also, it exaggerates the extent to which people care about good corporate citizenship. Being good matters. Beyond being the right thing to do, it helps attract investment and talent, and will make scrutiny and reproach less likely. But it doesn’t matter that much, right now, all the time. I recently wrote that the notion that corporate behaviour drives consumer-purchasing decisions is overstated and that plenty of unpopular companies do just fine. People will purchase goods and services based on price, habit and ease more than behaviour and reputation. Hence why most campaigns targeting unpopular corporates fail to take off. Certainly, social media poses risks in that a dud product or service will be exposed fast on social media, to great cost. But this is hardly the prerogative of the unpopular, but rather, of the incompetent.

The cliché further overstates the impact of campaigns that actually do take off in terms of numbers reached. The cost of engaging in a campaign is now so low (the proverbial click by a slacktivist) that dozens of campaigns with millions of supporters can run simultaneously on online petition sites while saturating our social media feeds. As a result, campaigns compete with each other and we become immune to them. A campaign has to be truly outrageous to hit a collective nerve. If we loosely define “impact” as a mix of the following – substantial and sustained cross-over to mainstream discourse, and subsequently, negative effects on sales, and/or greater risk of long-term reputational damage, and/or harmful regulation and licence to operate limitations – the number of campaigns with true “impact” is very limited indeed.

Similarly, the cliché implies that amplified criticism invariably damages an industry or company’s standing. It’s not quite that simple. In its Authenticity Gap research, my former employer, FleishmanHillard, stresses that reputation is driven by the difference between expectation and experience across a series of variables. Simplified: if someone expects a company to be highly innovative and it is not, say a tech company, it will take a reputational hit. Likewise, if a company is not expected to be environmentally friendly at all, say an oil and gas giant, but it then exceeds expectations ever so slightly, they’ll actually accrue reputational benefit (perversely, some may think). By no stretch am I implying that companies that are not expected to behave well should not bother, but it does highlight the nuances.

In conclusion, should companies and industries on the wrong side of the public debate stop worrying so much? Of course not: the scrutiny that social media enables is real. This is true for both the popular and the unpopular. And if they are on the wrong side of the public debate because they are truly unpleasant, the good times won’t last. But for those somewhere in the middle, they should probably expend more effort on harnessing the benefits of social media and other online channels and tactics, rather than worrying about the naysayers.

An overblown business truism: behaviour as a driver of consumer purchasing

Companies that are good corporate citizens should sell more stuff: 55% of consumers claim they are more likely to purchase from companies they deem ethical (Nielsen, 2004).

As a result, corporate communicators and marketers spend lots of time telling us about the good deeds of their employers. Those who intellectualise the phenomenon cite buzz-terms like reputation economy, conscious capitalism and shared value. Everyone agrees: being good is good for business.

All true, but not to the extent that most claim.

Companies should do good. It’s the right thing to do. And it does make business sense. Being good means a company is more likely to attract good employees and investment. And less likely to be targeted by activists. And more likely to limit damage in a crisis.

But surely it’s not that great for sales. In the long term, probably. And in some sectors more than others, no doubt. If you’re a smoothie producer you’re more scrutinised than if you make ball-bearings, one would assume. But in any case, at this moment in time, how many people are truly fussed whether a company limits carbon emissions, has sound financials and treats its employees well? In the real world, Apple is the most highly valued brand in the world despite not being an especially renowned corporate citizen. Unpopular companies like Nestle and Monsanto are doing pretty well. In the real world, most people don’t even know whether the company that made their product is a good corporate citizen. They purchase based on habit, price or how pretty the packaging looks.

And the figures? Consumers claim they are more likely to buy from companies they deem ethical. Sure: but who gets polled? And what are they asked? If it’s something along the lines of “are you more likely to buy from a company that is ethical?” most people would say yes. If asked: rank the 5 top determinants of your purchasing decisions from the following list (price, habit, quality, ease and ethical manufacturer) would most not place ethical manufacturer quite far down the list? Probably.

Doing good is noble and beneficial to business on some level, and will be a prerequisite for success in the future. Is it an absolute prerequisite for immediate success now? In most cases, no.

Different audience, different approach

One of the most common (and tidiest) ways of breaking down audiences targeted through communications or campaigning is the following:

  1. People who like you
  2. People who dislike you
  3. People who are indifferent to you (or don’t know you)

In corporate communications, we’ve a habit of treating everyone as if they were in category 3. We’re constantly introducing ourselves and delivering the basics on repeat.

Which is a mistake on three fronts:

  1. We bore those who like us. They may even feel patronised. They aren’t being encouraged to support us or advocate on our behalf.
  2. We waste our time on those who dislike us, yet persist on trying to change their minds although it tends not to work (or take a long time when it does).
  3. We assume introductions to those who are indifferent to us (or don’t know us) will suffice. This group is key to success: we should not treat it as a homogenous unit, but break it down into segments and give precedence to those likely to yield the greatest reward.

In a nutshell: as tempting as it is to tell everyone the same thing and hope someone latches on, it’s best to ignore some, and prioritise others – and treat each category (and sub-category) differently.

Brand vs. corporate: a lesson from each to the other

One of the numerous slightly artificial splits in communications is between brand (seeking to reach a consumer with a view to selling) and corporate (seeking to reach audiences that don’t necessarily purchase, but are otherwise essential, like investors, regulators, employees or analysts).

Brand and corporate people tend not to like each other much. Brand think corporate are dull, smug and behind the times. Corporate think brand are vacuous and gimmicky.

But in the digital age, it’s harder to keep the two separate: brand and corporate audiences consume the same media. Moreover, brand and corporate positioning increasingly overlap. An organisation’s purpose beyond profit, the way it treats its employees, or how it manages it books – for instance – are of interest to audiences across the brand/corporate spectrum.

This also means that people like me, whose comfort zone is corporate, can’t avoid brand gigs. Indeed, I’ve done more brand than corporate over the last few months, and it’s been an eye-opener.

What key lesson can each learn from the other? (NB: I’m generalising, clearly.)

Corporate communicators tend (stress: tend) to value knowledge more. They know more about the sectors they operate in. They need to, given that their audiences – investors, regulators and the like – know their stuff. Brand folk can indeed be a bit vacuous in this regard, choosing not to value and accrue deep product and sector knowledge. Instead they focus on short-term attention grabbing, rather than imparting expertise and building relationships over time. Given the nature of present-day content and influencer marketing, this is a mistake. With mountains of content a mouse-click away, consumers often know more than they are given credit for. They may wish to examine a product in detail, learn what others say about it, or determine whether the company in question aligns with their values. Meanwhile, consumers who adore a brand have the means to be its most potent advocates. In both instances, provision of top-tier material and ongoing interaction are what’s needed, not another bloody discount coupon.

Meanwhile, brand people tend (again, I stress: tend) to be more results focused. Corporate communicators can talk for hours about the intricacies of pharma pricing or preferred climate change mitigation mechanisms. However, while wooing analysts – and their bosses – with their know-how, they often fail to think about, let alone measure, whether they are having a genuine impact on awareness, influence or sales. They often act as if metrics were somehow beneath them, arguing that their environments are too complex to measure. Tosh. Given that brand folk don’t have much knowledge to woo their bosses with, they need to impress through results. So they have clear, measurable objectives that all activities stem from. Although I many not agree with some brand folks’ preferred metrics (often short-term awareness and sales rather than long-term preference and advocacy) at least we know whether they’re meeting objectives and they are held accountable.

There you have it: brand folk, do more reading and don’t treat customers like fools; corporate, get off your high horse and determine whether you’re having an impact or just making noise.

 

3 stages of maturity of digital & social media in corporate communications

A visual from a recent presentation of mine on stages of digital and social media maturity in corporate communications (including public affairs):

digital & social in corp comms

p.s. if you’re still in basic, fret not: 90% of the organisations I come into contact with are. This is fine, as long as there’s a vision for where the bar should be set (i.e. intermediate then advanced).

Corporate communications & PA: focus more on the target, less on the message

Some corporate communicators and public affairs practitioners still focus too much on the message, and not enough on the target: audiences are defined as broadly as ”media” or “policy-makers” and even the meaningless “general public”.

As top-tier marketers and political campaigners have known forever, target audiences need to be narrowed down enormously: a communicator should ideally break down their target list all the way to single individuals within each audience segment, be it real individuals when audience numbers are small or budgets are huge, or more likely, fictional but highly representative personas.

This will in turn enable the communicator to: a) more easily determine what that person wants or needs thorough research and testing (possibly involving some scrutiny of social data); b) based on that, understand whether there is any overlap between their wants and needs and what the communicator can offer; and c) if so, communicate accordingly.

Again, too often, corporate communicators bypass these steps, and develop 2 or 3 broad-based messages that in theory should reach and influence all “media” or “policy-makers” or whatnot. What is far more likely to work is closer inspection of audiences, then targeting multiple segments applying tweaked storylines based on what’s most likely to affect each one. In essence, what political campaigners call micro-targeting.

Why is this not the norm? Why do we invest in “messaging sessions” without first knowing much about whom we are trying to influence? A mix of reasons no doubt, but first and foremost, it’s a legacy of old-school PR largely based on hunches and relationships, and communicators not being accountable enough for their output.

Corporate comms & public affairs: often too rational to win

In a recent post – A business delusion: “non-profits win because they can peddle misinformation” – I implied that corporate communicators tend to underestimate the sophistication of the non-profit’s communications toolkit. Building on that, I’d argue that NGOs often win because corporates approach communications far too rationally.

We’re not rational beings. Think family, friends or political affiliation: do we evaluate each rationally i.e. weigh up pros and cons and then decide whether we like them or not? Of course not. Yet most corporate communicators must think we do. Show people facts, data or science – they claim – or tell them stories repeatedly, and they’ll be won over.

This ignores two factors:

  • Confirmation bias: we invariably seek to confirm our existing beliefs; no matter how credible, opposing proof points are unlikely to change our fundamental views (and may even strengthen them.)
  • NGOs don’t simply present their side of the story; they frame issues as ethical (them) vs. unethical (their opponents). And once you’ve been portrayed as unethical, you can’t fight the label by rationalising.

So what options remain for corporate communicators (including PA professionals)?

  1. Give up on trying to convince everyone. If confirmation bias is at play, beliefs run deep. Ignore and move on to groups whose views are not so set in stone.
  2. Fight an ethical battle; build legitimacy passionately not rationally, and don’t be afraid of getting into a scrap.
  3. Build legitimacy beyond issues; being top-tier (and credible) employers and citizens can have a greater impact than a credible take on day-to-day issues, for instance.
  4. Don’t just rebut your opponent’s position: create an alternative narrative rather than seeking to reframe the prevailing one.
  5. If you do rebut, don’t belittle the recipient: you know where they stand and see their point, but beg to differ.

Better communications

The full-service communications agency – and the generalist communicator – face a number of challenges.

The communications landscape

Media complexity:  it goes without saying that channel proliferation, low barriers to entry and information overload conspire to make reach, engagement and persuasion more difficult.

Evolving service offering: media complexity, coupled with the continuing commoditisation or insourcing of previously lucrative activities (from monitoring a few years back to the likes of community management now) means that the service offering needs to constantly adapt and expand.

The nature of opinion formation: communications alone cannot dictate opinion formation (which then shapes reputation, purchasing decisions etc.) Peer recommendations matter, so product quality needs to be optimal, obviously. In addition, an organisation’s behaviour can dictate opinion, and communicators are often powerless to affect areas that shape it, like culture, leadership, structure and business model, either because they don’t have the skill-set or a seat at the right table (usually both).

Specialisms: scores of agencies specialise in individual elements of the communications landscape; their ability to focus means they’ll invariably be best at what they do. Do-all agencies and generalists struggle, given the sheer number of specialisms. In the “beyond communications” space, dedicated digital transformation and change management players, as well as professional services companies moving into the intersection of their traditional offering and communications, present a real threat.

Culture

Enduring paradigms: in my previous stomping ground, Brussels, the government relations paradigm was seemingly shatterproof; in London, media relations still rules the roost (get a headline in a paper and self-satisfied back-patting ensues). Unless an organisation truly commits to specialising, focusing on a single component of the communications suite is too narrow given the intricacies of modern-day communications.

Measurement as an afterthought: the metrics for success in PR/PA used to be basic, not much beyond a story in a target publication (PR) or a meeting with a decision-maker (PA), for instance. Now, organisations demand measurement set against real business objectives. Despite some improvement and all manner of models, sophisticated measurement is not yet the norm.

Low bar-setting in execution: possibly due to the simplicity of traditional outputs of communications e.g. the press release, communicators too often fail to raise the bar for elements of our work where the output itself needs to be exceptional e.g. gorgeous creative or highly insightful research.

Rudimentary approach to assessing opinion formation: as a follow-up to the previous point, communicators too frequently fail to adopt a methodical approach to assessing what makes people tick (what makes them support a cause, make a purchasing decision etc.) Pollsters and market researchers have been doing it for decades, yet communicators in the PR/PA space have bizarrely neglected it.

So what do we – agencies, generalist communicators – do about it?

The obvious: hire specialists and pick up tricks from other disciplines (marketing, political campaigning, management consulting etc.)

Genuine commitment to partnering: this should already be rife, especially within the giant marketing and communications conglomerates where scores of agencies supposedly share their specialisms and guarantee economies of scale, but it’s not ubiquitous yet. No surprise, given that the prevalent business model still favours keeping work in-house.

Eradicate the junior generalist: not literally, but a young communicator who isn’t specialising in a particular discipline of communications is an anachronism, given the complexities described above. Assuming they’re talented, experienced counsellors can still be generalists, as their role should centre on translating business problems into strategy. So knowing what the smorgasbord of specialties without actually being an expert in any of them can suffice. But what good is an inexperienced junior whose role is to execute, when they’re expected to do so across multiple disciplines, none of which they’ll ever master.

Phase out the alpha fixer: too many experienced communicators belong to the school of the alpha fixer – confident, with a quick and irrefutable answer to every concern. Given the complexities of the communications landscape, the alpha fixer cannot know it all, and should change tact. Their role should be to ask the right questions, translate business problems into strategy, then point to the experts within specialisms.

Next phase of digital in corporate communications

For the communicator whose focus has been applying digital and social to corporate communications, efforts have tended to centre on building foundations:

  • Evangelism – continually proving the value to internal audiences, given the peculiarities of corporate communications (smaller audiences and a – supposedly – more cerebral message)
  • Channel strategy – given the niches, channel strategy has been front of mind as the corporate communicator has tended to be unsure of the value of most channels and usually wants to only be present on one or two
  • Operations – corporate communications teams tend to be small; how can they, operationally, manage online content and engagement given the stress it places on resources
  • Governance – corporate communicators are the guardians of reputation and their remit covers crisis, so clear governance has always been imperative

Although many organisations are still grappling with the foundations, others have got those boxes ticked. So the token digital and social person in the room now frequently needs to address other needs which represent the next phase of digital in corporate communications: doing it bloody well. Most of all, this involves:

  • Planning – the insights and ideas piece. We’re producing content, but so is everyone else. What’s the target audience insight that matters most, and what’s a smart idea for getting their attention and influencing their views?
  • Creative – how can the smart idea best be presented?
  • Subject matter knowledge – whereas knowing the channels and the principles has usually been enough, the person wearing the digital hat is also expected to understand the issue and/or sector in question more than has previously been the case

In effect, in the latter scenario, the digital person in corporate communications is no more. Basic planning, creative and subject matter knowledge don’t stem from knowledge of digital; they’re the hallmarks of a competent communications generalist. Purely “digital” people tend now to be experts in a single element of digital (a single component of social, user experience, listening etc.) As for the generalists, they should be removing “digital” from their job titles.