Tight on resources? Deputize your brand’s fans

Sometimes you just need more people. In January, Washington, D.C. deputized out-of-town security and police forces during the Obama inauguration. The city gave them the tools and authority to manage the massive crowds that had descended for the weekend. The size of the actual D.C. police force didn’t grow permanently, but it had the resources it needed to get through the event. Brands can achieve the same effect – a simulated growth in the size of its marketing resources – by deputizing their fans.

penzeysI am a huge fan of Penzey’s Spices. The company is based in Wisconsin and has a few dozen stores throughout the US and a mail-order catalog. Their products are amazing. Their cinnamon (all four varieties) is the best I’ve ever tasted. Penzey’s rubs and spice blends for meats and vegetables can make a good cook out of just about anyone. They offer adorable spice gift packages that I’ve often given at wedding showers and as holiday gifts. A few of my favorite recipes were discovered in their spice catalogs. I don’t ever plan on buying grocery-store spices again.

I will gladly sing Penzey’s praises to anyone who will listen (see above paragraph). But here’s the problem – I have very little at my disposal to aid in my Penzey’s evangelization. It doesn’t appear that the company has even dipped its toes into the social media waters yet. No Facebook fan page, no Twitter account, no company blog. That leaves me with only their Web site to direct people to after I tell them how absolutely delicious the Florida Seasoned Pepper or Northwoods Fire blend is.

But Penzey’s Web site is relatively bland – it’s set up essentially as a no-frills eCommerce site. There’s no way for me to interact with the brand and share it with my friends. Bill Penzey, the company founder, writes a folksy customer letter in each catalog and it’s posted on the penzeys.com Web site. But I can’t share it via Facebook, Delicious or Twitter. The catalog is essentially on the site in .pdf format – making it difficult to share. The recipes from the catalog are also posted to the Web site. But again, I can’t bookmark them, post them to a profile, or even “e-mail this page to a friend.”

What Penzey’s perhaps doesn’t realize is that I, and I’m sure many of their other fans, would do a heck of a lot of free marketing for them if we only had tools and content at our disposal. People are already talking about the brand online: a Google blog search for Penzey’s returns more than 14,000 results. On Facebook, a loyal Penzey’s fan created a group that has almost 400 members and there are three others with a couple dozen members. It doesn’t appear that anyone from Penzey’s participates in these groups.

If Penzey’s fans were deputized – armed and equipped with social tools to take to our friends and networks – we could spread our love for Penzey’s at an exponential rate. Imagine if Penzey’s had a Facebook fan page that featured recipes, images, coupons, gift ideas or cooking tips. Or if they created a YouTube channel or Flickr account where their fans could post photos or videos of the meals they created using Penzey’s spices. Penzey’s doesn’t necessarily need to dive in to a full-fledged social media campaign, but creating some social outposts could go a long way toward allowing their fans to interact with the brand (and with each other) and easily share Penzey’s information with their social networks.

Many smaller businesses are afraid of moving into social media because they think it will take too much time. But if your customers like your brand enough and you give them the necessary tools, they will spend their own time to tout your brand among their friends. So give ‘em a badge.

Image via Flickr user amymengel (yeah, I took that one)

Coming soon: Network Overload

Source: Flikr user NorthernLaLa

Do you remember how your mom would tell you every year on Halloween that too much candy at once would make you sick? That you should save some for later, space it out over a few days? But that you were so excited to have all that candy that you scarfed it all down, and then paid for it later?

While a good deal of social networking might be in its infancy, we have to assume that eventually, a lot of these tools and tactics will become mainstream– if you can’t claim that already. As the late majorities and laggards start to come around, it’ won’t be long before Facebook and Twitter are as ubiquitous as e-mail. Niche-specific social networks have begun popping up like Whack-a-Moles. Will all this lead to a social meltdown? Will we really be able to keep track of all of our friends, followers, feeds and networks? Will we NEED a separate network for every conceivable aspect of our lives? Will too much make us sick to our stomachs?

I’m currently a member of two Ning networks: PROpenMic and my industry-specific network. (I’m sure many of you know this, but Ning is a platform for building a Facebook-like social network for a specific group of people.) As Ning and similar platforms become more widespread and more people become comfortable with social networking, I can only imagine that the number of groups creating their own social network will rise dramatically. Remember how it used to be so hard to build a web site and so not may people/organizations had one?

I can envision a point where my university alumni association, church, town, dentist’s office, neighborhood, family and even my pets all have separate social networks. It’s already underway- my family is getting into Geni, my alumni association has integrated lots of social networking features into its Web site. Dave Fleet just noted that he’s seen an uptick in Ning networks and inspired the title for this post:

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The more diffuse my involvement in social networking, the less engaged I am. I used to spend a lot of time on Facebook. Then I discovered Twitter. I’m a member of Geni, GoodReads, TripAdvisor– and about a dozen other sites. The more I join, the less I seem to interact. My interest in one network gives way to another. I’m not so sure that it’s a matter of having the time to participate as having the attention span. Even services like FriendFeed that consolidate my activity into one place make it only slightly easier to handle. And often I’m connecting and interacting with the same people across all these different networks.

So what does the future look like? As we join more social networks, will we actually socialize less? Will people join everything but participate in nothing? What good is a network if none of the members actively participate?

People have been postulating for a while now that “social networking fatigue” will force more interoperability between networks. Will one network, like Facebook, dominate and roll-up all other, smaller networks under its umbrella? I don’t think people will want to manage dozens of profiles and interactions at dozens of Web sites.

As we counsel clients and businesses on social media and introduce them to the possibilities, I think it’s important to emphasize that just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD (see: shoulder pads, Furbies, and the Pontiac Aztek). Social networking strategies need to reflect a business goals and provide value to an organization’s stakeholders. Just because it’s easy to create a specific social network for your customers/employees/members doesn’t mean that it’s the best tool or method for engaging that audience. Look at what’s already out there and what tools the audience is already using. Are most of them active on Facebook? Maybe a fan page is a better alternative to a separate social network. Maybe all you need to do is jazz up your existing Web site with some interactive features that don’t require a login or profile.

In all our excitement about new tools and opportunities that social media presents, we have to remember that eating all the candy at once is going to make everyone sick. Mom was right – you’ve got to pace yourself!

Image via Flickr user NorthernLaLa

Answer Honestly: Communications conundrums

At my recent ski trip out to Lake Tahoe with good pals, we ended up with a case of Molson Canadian beer one night. The bottles contained labels with the phrase “Answer Honestly” and then presented an either/or question: Would you prefer to be rich or good looking; would you prefer to be a vampire or a werewolf; etc. It led to some pretty heated debates among some slightly tipsy people about the relative merits and ethical implications of flying vs. being invisible, for example.

Last week Steve Crescenzo even asked his own “Answer Honestly” -  tweet:

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Communicators are often faced with situations that feature unappealing options and we have to make the best decision we can based on our constraints, resources, and the needs of our organizations or clients. We don’t have a choice -  we are called upon to handle whatever situation lies before us. But wouldn’t it be fun to pick and choose? Here’s a communicator’s version of “Answer Honestly” :

Answer Honestly: Would you rather have to communicate a layoff of 10 percent of your workforce or a 20 percent pay cut for all of your workforce?

This one’s tough, and both of these scenarios are happening at a lot of companies today. On the one hand, a pay cut seems to appear more equitable: everyone takes a little bit of pain to save the jobs of some of their co-workers. But it also means that everyone’s left unhappy. A layoff affects fewer people more profoundly. From a communications standpoint, a layoff is more of an “event” that happens and is over relatively quickly. I know there’s plenty of research about “survivor’s guilt” among remaining workers, and communicators need to be extremely sensitive to how the news is delivered not only to departing employees but also remaining ones. How will their jobs change now that staff reductions have been made? How will the organization continue to meet its goals with fewer people? Is this all or will there be more layoffs to come? But I still think I’d rather have to communicate a lay off than across-the-board pay cuts. The pay cuts mean that everyone remains in the organization, but everyone now has something to complain about. And they will complain – here is some pretty solid evidence of that. While across-the-board pay cuts are often communicated with a “we’re all in this together” mentality, it’s tough to get people to focus on the needs of group/organization versus their own personal situation. It depends so much on the culture of the organization and its leadership.

Answer Honestly: Would you rather have to communicate a product recall or a financial/ethical scandal?

Hmm. Both of these scenarios can be red flags for endemic corruption within an organization. A product recall can be difficult if the source or reason hasn’t been identified. But at least in that situation there’s a chance it was an accident or honest mistake that led to the quality issues. There are plenty of great examples known throughout communications-land as best practices for how to handle this type of event: Lexus, Tylenol = good, Ford/Firestone, Peanut Butter = not so good. If handled correctly, the damage to an organization’s reputation can be minimal, and in some cases it’s an opportunity to provide outstanding customer service. With a financial or ethical scandal, however, the root of the problem is usually shady people doing shady things. There’s not much you can do to overcome that, and it typically indicates that a culture existed within an organization that allowed it to happen – management either participated, encouraged, or looked the other way (do I even need to say Enron? Didn’t think so). There’s typically great distrust of an organization after a scandal, and often attempts to repair the reputation are immediately labeled as disingenuous spin. I’d have to go for a product recall here (and hope that the recall is not due to some sort of deliberate malicious behavior – which I guess would make it an ethical scandal, right?).

Answer Honestly: Would you rather duke it out with Human Resources or Legal over your communications strategies and wording?

Shoot me now. Obviously communicators have to work with all involved stakeholders when communicating internally or externally. There are certainly laws regarding employee privacy, forward-looking financial statements, and competitive/proprietary information. But a communicator’s quest for transparency is often foiled by one or both of these functions. They are business partners, however, and deserve the same respect that we seek as communicators. Working with them is not optional and often these functions to provide a different viewpoint that can enhance communications. If I could choose to only work with one, though, I’d have to go with HR. Often times the run-ins I’ve had with legal come down to, “It’s the law. We can’t say it your way. End of story.” With HR, there can be a little more wiggle-room and with some good supporting arguments, you can often win them over– or at least meet in the middle.

Answer Honestly – what would you choose?