You can tell a lot about a person from the way he emails.
Who would you want to have a beer with?
That question kept racing through my mind as I read though the replies to a solicitation I recently sent to a ListServ of digital strategists. The emails, which within an hour numbered more than a dozen (with a half-dozen more trickling in over the next two days), ranged from the pedestrian to the eloquent.
I’m publishing a representative handful to correct a widespread misperception among consultants in every industry: from publicists to painters to pet-sitters, what ultimately separates the winning vendor from the runners up isn’t the quality of your work. It’s whether people want to work with you. In other words, your likability.
Whether you love it or love to hate it, the New York Times is the king of digital journalism for a simple reason: it’s always innovating. Beyond making “snowfall” a verb, the so-called Gray Lady has in recent months overhauled its website, introduced new revenue streams, produced a viral video based verbatim on a deposition, bought its own native ads, launched an explainer microsite, and built a suite of apps.
These bells and whistles aren’t just pretty ornaments for a press release, but enlightening enhancements for the everyday user. Indeed, there’s something for every audience: the designer, the stockholder, the videographer, the advertiser, the reporter, and the reader on the go.
For the social media strategist, the paper’s most significant innovation is a tiny tactic that makes stories easier to tweet. Often overlooked, this trick ought to be standard practice on every major website today. Let’s take a look.
Why PR pros should never say something is too boring/dry/abstract/long/complex to generate buzz
Piers Morgan says he’s a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s writing. So big, in fact, that Sorkin’s latest show—which begins with the brilliant, impassioned monologue of a news anchor—inspired him to infuse his own reporting with the zealotry of a convert.
And yet, Morgan’s passion runs only so deep. During an interview last year with the cast of the show, Morgan extolled CNN’s coverage of the Carnival “poop cruise”—how the network steered something “I had absolutely zero interest in” into something “I got completely engrossed in.” The payoff for this programming: the ratings doubled.
Seizing the moment, Sorkin zinged Morgan with the $64,000 question: why can’t the media dedicate the same energy and resources to serious, important news? “Do you think there’s a way that Jeff [Zucker, CNN’s chief] … can apply that same talent to, for instance, the sequester?’”
“Honestly, no,” Morgan shot back. “I think the sequester is one of the most supremely boring stories ever told on television ... There are many political stories which are just incredibly dry, and trying to make them come to life … it doesn’t rate.”
The most common social media fail is easily correctable.
People are lazy. Web publishers are no exception. When they install social-sharing buttons, all too often they leave the default settings in place.
As a result, when a user clicks the ubiquitous “tweet” button to promote your content, nine times out of 10, what he ends up sharing is simply, unforgivably the article’s headline.
Big mistake. Under this setup, all your efforts prodding people to share your content are negated when they actually do.
What should you do instead? For every post published, you should embed a teaser that you’ve tailored for Twitter. (This can be accomplished by adding a new field or plug-in to your CMS.) Under this setup, when that share button is summoned, your fans will be sharing text specific to the medium, not a one-size-fits-all compromise.
“Upworthy is the worst site on the Internet.” So says Bob Powers of HappyPlace.
Jack Flanagan of the Daily Beast concurs: “Sites like Upworthy cater to the basest and most recklessly childish of human instincts.”
PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie rounds out the contempt: “The hammer of [Upworthy’s] unrelenting moralism starts to feel not so much as if it is breaking barriers as it is cracking your skull.”
Absent the rancor, their collective contention boils down to this: websites like Upworthy are the modern-day heirs to the disgraced practice of yellow journalism. If, say, the Podunk Herald wanted to prostitute itself to page views, it too could make things go viral.
Don’t just tweet the headline. Comment on the article. Explain why you’re sharing it.
Tweeting has never been easier. Just click that turquoise bird alongside nearly every kind of content on the web today, and a ready-to-go message presents itself. All you need to do is click “tweet.” The whole thing takes less than five seconds!
Yet there’s no decree dictating that you must use this prewritten gruel. In fact, you shouldn’t use the default text, which is tantamount to a robot announcing the Oscar winners: it’s generic and devoid of any shout-outs, styling, or personal commentary. After all, what you tweet is transmitted over your name and avatar, so it behooves you to stamp it with your own style.
What’s more, if you want to stand out, you can’t just put out what everyone else is typing. You need to offer up something new—even if it’s just your two sense. Indeed, with this little bit of extra effort, you can make each tweet count.
That italicized sentence at the bottom of your blog posts isn’t a necessary evil, but an easily exploitable opportunity.
Ten years ago, after you finished reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to a song, it was over; you were done. If you wanted to share your reactions, you saved them for the water cooler.
Today, the traditional indicators of finality—a tombstone mark for an article (∎), the words “the end” for the silver screen, a trio of hashtags (###) for a news release—have been supplanted by a button that beckons you tinno “like,” “retweet,” “pin,” or perform some other variation of social-media sharing.
For example, by displaying a hash tag, TV commercials encourage you to “join the conversation” on Twitter. Magazine articles refer you to a website “for more information.” Even McDonald’s has climbed aboard the bandwagon, stamping QR codes that reveal nutritional data on its carryout bags.
How can you, dear blogger, get in on these gigs and thus propagate your posts? Specifically, how can you milk your content for more followers and fans?
Easy: just start making use of an often-overlooked implement in the marketer’s toolkit: your byline.
How to be a showman without becoming a showboat. Or: How to make your message hot without looking like a hot dog.
“Politics is a direct-response business,” declares the digital director of President Obama’s re-election campaign. “People do things if you ask them to do it, and ... don’t … if you don’t ask.”
Exactly! In fact, this is true not only in politics, but also in social media. If you want your readers to click “like” or “retweet” or “reblog” or “pin” or “plus,” you gotta ask for it. Not for nothing do two of the web’s most popular sites—BuzzFeed and Mashable—serve up big buttons at the top of each article, beseeching you to “share me now!” What’s more, these icons now include the number of shares in real time, boxing you in with peer pressure: “Don’t share me—I dare you!” This is marketing at its finest: so subliminal, you think you’re making a considered choice.
When creating their company website, many small businesses defer to their “web guy” on the address. “Oh, JanesFlowers.com isn’t available? Ok, JanesFlowers2.com is fine.”
No! No! No! While seemingly trivial, your URL is in fact critical. Don’t let it be an afterthought; make this decision an integral facet of your planning and branding.
After all, not only will your domain be printed on your business cards and in your email signatures. You’ll also need to pronounce it in a way that leaves no room for confusion.
Consider a few case studies.
Let others sing your praises.
After college, I did what most liberal arts grads do when they come to Washington: I interned at a think tank. As I subsequently embarked on my career, I shied away from the word “intern,” a moniker that I felt would betray my lack of experience. Instead, my bio and LinkedIn profile said I “did media relations” for the Cato Institute.
This was true: I edited op-eds from Cato’s scholars and pitched them to the media; I just didn’t volunteer my job title. I’d argue that this sin of omission is the benign kind of biographical betterment.
Digital branding starts in your inbox.
It’s something you take for granted, something seemingly trivial, even mundane. When executed thoughtfully, however, it makes a splash. It says, “This guy is sharp—I want to work with him!”
What is this opportunity, obvious but overlooked? It’s the bookends of your emails: your address and signature block—often, the first and last thing your recipients will see. For better or worse, your email bookends are powerful purveyors of your brand. What are yours conveying about you?
A version of this blog post appeared in PR Daily on February 21, 2013 and the PRSA-NCC Blog on February 26, 2013.
Anyone can apologize. Indeed, we all do from time to time. But to do it well—to extinguish the fire rather than re-ignite it—ultimately requires the one thing that even we PR pros can’t fake: sincerity.