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Looking for a new agency? Make sure your RFP is relevant Lately, I've had the opportunity to share lunch, drinks or dinner with several colleagues in the PR industry. We each represent different types of firms of varying sizes. Interestingly (well, to me anyway), a topic that has come up repeatedly has to do with RFPs (Requests for Proposal). These are documents companies and government entities send to start the process of selecting an agency, either as a long term partner or for a specific project. To the person, we have expressed amazement - and, frankly, irritation - over what is required of agencies just to get in the game. Here are some of the things my friends and I have seen companies require in their RFPs: > Sample press releases that demonstrate the agency's ability to make an "appropriate announcement of news"; > Several examples of specific pitches. (One RFP required the agency to develop four different angles about an upcoming servicet that was outlined in the RFP summary and write a pitch for consumer media, trade media, the business press and analysts.); > Actual graphic comps of suggested logos, including applications such as letterhead and business cards; > Examples of editorial calendars, with specific pitches for X number of potential calendar opportunities. It is not uncommon for it to take several agency people a week or two to respond to some RFPs. It can cost the agency thousands of dollars to prepare answers to questions just to see if they get selected to present even more ideas. Meanwhile, companies often decide up front to issue RFPs to X number of agencies with the intent of inviting only 3 (or some other arbitrary number) in to do a presentation. My friends and I have traded stories about situations where we have invested heavily in RFPs and new business pitches, only to see the company stay with their existing agency or decide they want to do everything in-house. That is certainly their perogative and I'm not a sore loser. But the fact is by going through the RFP process they are also now in possession of some great new ideas and even some specific angles and pitches. Some of my friends have even suggested that was the intention all along. ALL agencies that have been in business more than a couple of years can write a decent press release. Who can't connect the dots between editorial calendars and pitches? Truth is, procurement's due diligence process should be able to ferret out the contenders easily. So what's the solution? Make the RFP process relevant by asking questions that really matter. For years I hired agencies when I was on the client side. What I cared about - and still do - is this: how do the people in the agency THINK? What processes do they use? What relationships do they have that will benefit my company? What experience do they have in my industry? How do they provide complementary services, such as market research, consulting and advertising? How have they been recognized in their industry? In my industry? How long have their clients been with them? In what ways do they contribute to the community? How do they resolve conflict? How accessible are they? What expectations do they have of their clients? The answers to these questions will tell you what you really need to know about whether the agency is a match for your organization. Don't get me wrong - good agencies love to be challenged. We look for opportunities to strut our stuff. We want to share great ideas. We welcome tough questions. But we hate to waste time - ours or yours - wallowing in minutia that isn't really meaningful. So if you're an organization that uses the RFP process to find the companies that service you, give some thought to what it is you really need to know.


Now hear this: school colors, funky shapes suddenly make hearing aids relevant to the vain I couldn't help but smile when I read today's story in the New York Times about the latest trend in designer hearing aids. It seems the latest rage is hearing aids that come in school colors, or match the wearer's hair color or cause others to think you're wearing cool jewelry. Apparently, many people who need hearing aids are hesitant to wear them simply because they are concerned it marks them as "old" to need assistance with something as ordinary as hearing. We can hardly blame the makers of hearing aids. They're just trying to remain relevant by finding new ways to make their product more palatable. If offering them in leopard skin or in the God-awful orange favored by many college football teams is what it takes to get people to wear them, well, more power to them. Personally, I think it's sad that people are so vain they can't bear the thought of wearing a hearing aid. Do they not realize what a nuisance they are to others, who have to repeat themselves all the time? And why is that the same person who's worried about how they'll look in hearing aids will go out of the house dressed head to toe in Tennesee or Florida colors? I'd rather be thought old than seriously fashion-challenged. I'm glad companies like Oticon are doing what it takes to make hearing devices relevant to those who need them. I just hope that the hard of hearing will take action. It is hard to remain relevant as a business professional if you can't hear what's going on. In fact, a key to remaining relevant is being willing to admit when you can't do something, don't know something, or need to change something in order to fully participate and contribute at work and in life. I know whereof I speak. I've been wearing two programmable digital hearing aids that fit down in the ear canal since I was in my mid-40's and they've completely changed my life. I wish I had gotten them sooner. God only knows what I missed all those years or what I inadvertently agreed with or unfairly dismissed. I know my neighbors are glad I bought aids. For almost 5 years I called them (and introduced them to others as) Sam and Carol. It turns out they're really Cam and Meryl. Here's the takeaway: consider what you're doing (or not) to remain relevant and be honest about the need to assess ALL your skills and make necessary changes. If you own a company or produce a product, consider whether there are ways to breathe new life into your business by doing something as simple as making an aesthetic change.


It's what you learn after you know it all that counts I recently had the opportunity to conduct a focus group made up of high school seniors who are academically gifted. The purpose of the discussion was to learn what tactics were being used to get them to consider certain colleges. All had received numerous solicitations from schools that ran the gamut from community colleges to prestigious Ivy League schools. Frankly, I was pretty certain I knew what they would say before I started the conversation. I figured most would say they do practically all of their college searches online. I just knew they would tell me they expected and wanted to receive e-mails from other students. Well, let's just say it's a good thing I didn't place any bets on my assumptions. Turns out they do so much online and are so connected, they actually respond better to hard copy mail. That's right: they said they wanted "bumpy" packages. More than one said, "It makes me feel special to get a big envelope addressed just to me." You see, they send and receive so much online, the way to get their attention is to do something out of the ordinary, which, in this case, is to do something extremely ordinary. Are you tracking? I suspect many other boomers like myself would assume they know what's relevant for the Y generation, based on our observation of their seemingly endless connectivity, short attention spans and remarkable talent for multitasking. There's an important lesson here for all of us: instead of going with what you "know" step back and ASK your clients what they want. People's preferences change based on the particular situation. What is it that you KNOW that deserves reconsideration? Remember, relevance is dynamic. Just because something worked last year doesn't mean it will work today.


Update on the Facebook fiasco Never underestimate the power of a bunch of ticked-off college kids! Wanted to update you on my earlier post today about the boneheaded move to put RSS feeds on Facebook. According to an article in today's USA Today, company executives reversed their earlier decision and decided to give Facebook users more control over the RSS feeds. At least a half million of Facebook's 9 million users demanded that Facebook "take back" the RSS feeds and started making noise about a protest against the company. Mark Zuckerberg quickly realized how fast this thing could get out of hand, so about 3 a.m. today he issued an apology to Facebook users and explained that Facebook will now give users more control over what, if anything, they want included from their profiles in an RSS feed. Kudos to Zuckerberg (with a name like that, just imagine what the protest signs would have read!). It's one thing to screw up, but at least Zuckerberg took quick action and owned up to the mistake and did the right thing. He can now officially run for President of the United States. God knows, this country just loves a wounded soul. Whew! What a way to start the weekend!

Random observations about recent events First, let me say I deserve three lashes with a wet noodle for not blogging over the past few weeks. I've never gone so long without an entry and my excuse is just that - an excuse. I've been traveling a lot (and carrying only my Blackberry), plus we bought and set up a second home (which was quite time consuming), so my blog went on hiatus. Hopefully, it won't happen again. Gosh, I do hope you readers were able to get some work done despite my absence. Anyway, there has been so much in the news lately that's interesting, instead of focusing on one subject today, I'll take on several. First, I'm so glad Katie Couric has now taken over the CBS Evening News. We can finally quit speculating about whether a person with ovaries can actually read a teleprompter to criticizing her because she doesn't always do so. Gimme a break. Would you Rather (ha!) she sit stonefaced pretending to be someone other than the perky, cute boomer that she is? Who was really surprised that she came out from behind the anchor desk to do interviews (and show off her gams)? She's Katie Couric. That's what Katie does. It's a marketing strategy, an attempt to make the news relevant to people who might watch morning TV, but not a news show. Let's move on already. YouTube. Wow. I feel like an Internet neophyte because I haven't posted a video yet. I like to have as much fun as the next nobody, but I just don't understand the appeal of watching total strangers do stupid things, even though I do it too sometimes. It's a guilty pleasure, I suppose. I still marvel at the Coke and Mentos fountains and I've done my share of passing on the dancing comic. But the skeptic in me has a hard time believing my chain isn't being yanked a lot of the times. I guess it's hard to believe that real nobodies actually make some of these videos just to entertain themselves and whoever else comes across them. It won't be long before Youtube becomes a huge playground for marketers hungry to to make their mark. Meanwhile, it's as good a place to waste time as any. I guess you've heard about how Facebook owners are getting their underwear in a knot over the new RSS feeds that were added. It's another example of solving a problem that didn't exist. I agree with the thousands of college students who yelled "Get the hell off our space!" The very idea of making it possible to proactively send a notice whenever someone's Facebook profile changes is absurd. Essentially, it's mass-e-mailing thousands of people to let them know that Jimmy and Tonia broke up is not only a waste of the technology, it can cause extreme and unnecessary embarrassment. Moreover, how irritating would it be to get several notices a day about things you don't care about? Can you say irrelevant? That's what RSS on Facebook is. Finally, I'm still chuckling over a conversation I had with a CEO of a small company who wanted to know what I thought about his company name. I won't further embarrass him by citing it here, but the net is this: I had to find a diplomatic way to say, "Are you frickin' crazy?" He thought it was so clever to name his company a word, except he purposely misspelled the word because he thought it would make the name more interesting. Let's say it was LIVE. Only he spelled it LIIIIIIVE because he had the idea that each of the i's stood for something they do. Sometimes, people need saving from themselves. I told him that 1) nobody would ever be able to find his web site; and 2) he'd irritate more people than he'd attract. He'll never have enough marketing dollars to go around knocking on every door in America to explain the name. He didn't get it. He thought he could "PR" his way into fame. I absolutely love PR, but even I wouldn't take on that challenge! Lesson: use some common sense when naming a company or product. It doesn't matter that you love the name if nobody else does.


CNN invites citizens to join in on the news coverage: amateur videos to get "air" time on new web site It had to happen. First, CBS made it possible for viewers to choose which news videos they wanted to see and in what order. Now, CNN has gone one step further by making it possible for viewers (citizen journalists, they're called) to produce their own news videos and submit them for sharing with others. The new I-Report lets everyday people contribute to the way events are covered. Since news crews can't be everywhere, but people with personal cameras can be, it made sense to find away to let people present their view of what's going on. Got a video you think everyone needs to see? Start at www.cnn.com/exchange to submit it. No more bugging the switchboard operator to put you in touch with the right producer. Skip trying track down the cameraman and on-site reporter at the event. You won't need to know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. Edelman's own Trust Barometer research tells us that people are eager to hear from "people like me." Mix in the fact that "massclusivity" is the catchword of the day and you have the perfect solution - people reporting news for people like them and each person being able to decide what they want to view and doing so on-demand. This is relevance taken to the nth degree. CNN, of course, says it will review all submissions and will post only a few. Apparently, they believe this "quality control" will keep the site pure. I'm not so sure. It never ceases to amaze me how often we see photos and/or videos that have been altered to lead us to believe we're seeing something that didn't really happen the way it is presented. Frankly, when I get an amazing video or photo via e-mail, I always check www.snopes.com to see if it has been validated. The site does a great job of giving the real scoop on "hard to believe" images. It will be interesting, too, to see how much of the citizen video makes into the CNN broadcast stories. They used amateur footage from the September 11 disaster and it made for better reporting, so it's entirely possible that we'll see even better coverage as a result of this new approach of inviting videos from the public. (As a bonus, CNN doesn't have to pay for the amateur footage. The videographer just gets bragging rights.) The cynic in me wonders if CNN isn't (unintentionally) creating a monster. I hope this new approach doesn't cause the PWC crowd (people with cameras) to be even more intrusive at public events, aways trying to capture a moment they can submit to the web site. What do you think? Does including "citizen journalists" add to CNN's credibility? The network is already the leader in credible news reporting (according to a Pew report, which notes that 29 percent of viewers believe most of what they see and hear from CNN). How long do you think it will be until a viewer-submitted video is "outted" for being a fake? And when (not if) that happens, will it hurt the whole concept in general?


How CBS is making the news more relevant to viewers As a voracious consumer of news (I read several newspapers a day, dozens of news magazines a month, hundreds of blogs and several TV news shows) I have often found myself wondering how the evening news producers select the feature stories. This is followed by a second thought that goes something ike, "I could so so much better." Well, CBS has apparently decided I was right. Letting me (you can join in too) decide what will get air play is the latest in a trend toward becoming more relevant. Weeks ago, they dumped dour Dan and hided cutie Katie. But this latest move is so far beyond the command and control tradition of CBS, I can only assume the head producer fell and bumped his head. When he came to, the thought crossed his mind that he wasn't the only one with an opinion. The CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer is letting viewers choose which of three stories it will air in an upcoming segment, called Assignment America. Viewers are shown three short clips and then asked to go to the CBS web site to vote on which assignment to send Steve Hartman to cover. The most recent offers Monk e-business (about Monks who apparently have a thriving online business selling refillable printer cartridges); Road Warriors (about a professional baseball team with no stadium, no fans and no hometown) and a peek inside a twin convention (presumably about people who look alike and dress alike and who get their jollies being around others who do the same). I wasn't able to figure out on the web site how to vote for my choice: Twin Monks Who Play Baseball, But Refill Printer Cartridges On the Side. Anyway, CBS will announce in two weeks where Steve will be going to cover the story viewers most said they wanted to see. (Recently, his assignment was to take his father to an amusement park to ride roller coasters.) CBS has taken our love of on-demand, customized products so seriously, it even now lets you build your own newscast. Simply go to the web site, click on the videos produced for airing, and determine the order in which you'd like to see/hear the stories. This "massclusivity" - exclusivity for the masses - permeates many industries now, from movies to books to TV shows. Predictability is less certain because each venue how offers multiple choices on how we'll experience the product. And that, after all, is the very essence of relevance: consuming what matters most to us. What are you doing to ensure your services and/or products offer the kind of relevance that comes with being offered choices? Remember, relevance takes many forms. Think beyond the tangible. Perhaps you can best achieve relevance through customized customer service, including the ways your customers can place orders. Or maybe relevance comes in availability of post-sale tech support. The point isn't that consumers must always get multiple choices or else you're irrelevant. Rather, it's that consumers must FEEL their input influences your offerings.


Are you figuring out where your customers are and then meeting them there? I am writing this blog entry from the balcony of a condo where my family has come to spend seven days and nights for vacation. We're at Myrtle Beach, SC (Garden City, specifically) and it's our first visit to this beach. I grew up in South Georgia, so most of my beach experience involves Florida beaches. It's amazing how different beaches can be. This one, for instance, has the highest high tide I've ever seen. The water comes within a couple of feet of most of the condos and houses. It's actually pretty cool. It has been four years since we've taken a beach vacation (we usually rent a lake house and take our boat). The very first day I was out on the beach I was struck by how quiet it was (especially on a beach that is very dense with bodies of all shapes and sizes). On past beach visits, I've always hated the dueling radios playing all kinds of music. You could never get away from them. Now everyone is listening to his MP3 player. I walked over two miles along the beach this morning and didn't find a single radio blaring, but I saw literally hundreds of people with little white earbuds plugged into their own little world. I passed dozens of runners (well, actually they passed me) wearing arm bands filled with iPod nanos, running to the beat of a different drummer, so to speak. I fully expect to see people with little tiny white lines running from their earlobes to their chins where they tanned everywhere but along the earbud route. These same people had one more thing in common. They weren't worried about getting sand on their cameras. Instead, they were snapping pictures like crazy people, all with their cell phones. All they had to remember was not to go running into the ocean without removing their phones and iPods from their pockets. (That's another thing: apparently, all men's bathing suits now have pockets, like cargo-style shorts.) My first thought was, "Thank goodness! No more radios!" This was followed by, "Oh my God! What an amazing marketing opportunity!" Here we have tons (and I mean that literally) of people glued to their cell phones and iPods, sitting on a beach with time to kill and a propensity to listen to whatever is relevant to them in the moment. Why shouldn't they be listening to podcasts about the beach community they're staying in? When they see someone parasailing or zipping by on a jet ski, why should they ever have to say, "I wonder how much that costs and where you sign up?" In other words, beach communities that aren't reaching out to these tourists through their cell phones and iPods are missing a golden opportunity. The local tourism council, or even a community of local business owners, could make it so easy for people to simply enter a code on their phone to opt in to a service that would tell them exactly what restaurants are having what specials today, or where to buy cheap boogie boards, or what shows are in town. In a matter of seconds, they can opt out as they leave town. Podcasts have limitless possibilities and can be available at several web sites. It wouldn't be a hard sell at all to find sponsors. Already, companies are moving advertising dollars away from radio talk shows to podcasts. And why not? They're reaching a more targeted audience that has to take action to get their content. Of course, the beach certainly isn't the only place where this kind of on-demand technology can benefit local business. Think of where your customers are and then meet them there. As soon as I'm done writing this entry, I'll download new content for my day on the beach tomorrow. I don't know what it will be yet, but you can be absolutely certain it won't be rap music!


The connection between ethics and relevance: what we can learn from astroturfing A group of us at Edelman had an interesting conversation today about astroturfing. It's a wonderfully descriptive term that refers to what happens when people try to start a grassroots movement that's not quite real. In this particular case, we were discussing whether it's ever OK for Edelman employees to reach out to our 2,000 colleagues in 45 offices around to world to ask them to check out a particular web site or blog we played a role in creating for a client. We have the ability to reach every Edelman employee in the world with a simple mouse click. We also have several subsets of Edelman employees, such as Moms or Young Men. But having the ability to reach them isn't the same as having the right. My colleague, Phil Gomes, really gets his underwear in a knot when he senses someone is astroturfing. And rightfully so. Phil understands the ethical dilemma this presents. After all, Edelman was instrumental in helping to draft the ethics code adapted by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. The fact is, "running up the numbers" just isn't ethical. Clients should never have to wonder if the traffic to their site or blog is from genuinely interested parties. (By the way, in most cases, they don't have to wonder: in the online world, it's pretty easy to track where traffic comes from.) And then there's the pragmatic reason not to try and influence traffic through systematic means (also known as cheating). Get caught and your reputation could go south faster than you can say the word "irrelevant." Hell hath no fury like a blogger or reporter who has been fooled. That's as it should be, in my never-to-be-humble opinion. Maybe you've been tempted to make your product, service or company look better by taking a few liberties here and there that, on the surface, don't seem to be a big deal. Perhaps you've even asked friends, relatives, colleagues and business affiliates to "help" you with an online promotion. Do as your conscience dictates, but be aware that you're taking a huge risk. As the Internet increasingly becomes the vehicle of choice for connecting with our target audiences, so too comes an increase in the likelihood of being ratted out as our audiences grow more sophisticated. Don't let that happen to you. Moreover, don't let someone else "fudge" on your behalf. Remember, you can't be "mostly ethical" any more than you can be "kind of relevant."


How the famous Ritz Carlton is changing to remain relevant Sometimes, remaining relevant means recognizing that the one thing you're famous for, the one thing that got you to where you are, may not be the thing that gets you where you want to go. Take the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain, fo instance. Arguably, no other institution is better known for its customer service. For more than 20 years their motto has been "ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." Employees have been reminded on a daily basis of the 20-point Ritz-Carlton service basics. No more. Now, they've declared 12 "service values" and employees are being asked to think for themselves rather than follow hard, fast, inflexible rules. Previously, for example, employees were chastised, even dismissed, for using folksy language ("Sure thing" or "No problem" instead of "Certainly. My pleasure"). Employees can now use their own judgment in deciding how to be true to the values without sticking with a "one size fits all" service edict. Why the change? Because today's customer is just as likely to be very casually dressed, younger, hipper and less welcoming of the formalities that traditional Ritz-Carlton customers have enjoyed. Today's millionaire could be a 30-year-old in jeans and a t-shirt who uses words like "dude" and talks on a cell phone while checking in at the front desk. Moreover, we can no longer assume that people with money also have great manners and high expectations. Sometimes, they're jerks who prefer a Prius to a limo and think great customer service means their wireless connection is free and the alarm clock on the bedside table accommodates their iPod. This change doesn't come without some risk, of course. There are many longtime guests who stay at the Ritz specifically because of its formality. They have every right to expect - and receive - the great, if prissy, service they've always received. This will be an interesting situation to watch. If I were a betting person, I'd say the Ritz can pull it off. It's all about great training, positive reinforcement of the right behaviors, and great word of mouth from customers... all elements that have helped them develop their reputation for a generation. I'm looking forward to staying at the Ritz in a few weeks on vacation and can hardly wait to see if I notice a difference in the service. I'll let you know. Meanwhile, let me know what you think about this change.


Take an elevator ride if you want to learn what a company does When we Edle-people came to work on Monday, it was to a new location, the 29th floor of Centennial Tower in downtown Atlanta. Never mind that it lengthened my commute by a few minutes. This place is incredible! Not only is the facility fabulous, it's smack in the middle of one of the busiest parts of Atlanta. You can feel the energy all day. But the best part has to be the elevators. They're those swanky kind trimmed in marble and wood with mirrored doors, which apparently were purchased from the same place the circus buys its "fun house" mirrors. They make me look fat and quite distorted, but alas, I digress. What I like about the elevators is that when you get on one with a total stranger, a golden opportunity presents itself. It's time to practice "the elevator speech." (We were on the fifth floor in our last facility, so there was barely time to say "good morning.") Every time I've been on the elevator this week, I wait until my fellow rider presses the button, then I ask, "So what do they do on that floor?" I've gotten some great - and not so great - answers. My favorite came yesterday when a woman smiled broadly and said, "I work for the transportation department tollways division. We make it easy for you to commute to work in the morning using the cruise card." Although I take the interstate all the way to work, I knew instantly what she meant and I was impressed with her ability to succinctly describe what her "company" did. She passed my sound bite test, which dictates that you should be able to express your most important thought in less than 10 seconds. Moreover, she immediately made the information relevant by saying "We make if easy for you...." My friend, Sam Horn, author of a great blog, PopofMind, spends a good portion of her days teaching people how to engage others by succinctly describing what they do, why they do it, and why it matters. In one of her blog entries, she wrote: Barbara Walters said, “There are few times in your life when it isn’t too melodramatic to say your destiny hangs on the impression you make.” There are few people in the business world who haven't heard of the elevator speech, but I'm doubtful that many truly take it seriously and test their ability to make an impression in a matter of seconds. Have you tried it? The next time you're in an office building and going up an elevator, ask a rider the "What do you do on that floor?" question. (This is a little harder to pull off going down, since most of the time, you're all going to the lobby level. People will think you're just weird, not curious.) And in case you're wondering... my elevator speech is, "I work for Edelman, the world's largest independent Public Relations firm. We create, improve or change companies' reputations."


Edelman reaches new heights in relevance for its clients: monitoring blogs in multiple languages Thanks to a partnership between Edelman and Technorati, the blogosphere is about to become more relevant than it has ever been for our multinational clients. The two companies have formed a relationship that enables the monitoring of blogs in five different languages. As a result, we will be able to help clients protect their corporate reputations while garnering valuable insight into what bloggers around the world are saying about our clients. My colleague, Steve Rubel, who writes the popular blog, Micropersuasion, must be downright giddy over this news. Imagine being the only company in the world that will be able to do blog searches in French, Italian, German, Chinese and Korean! The blogosphere has become one of the most relevant forms of communication on the planet. Now, this new capability takes it one step further. Starting in the third quarter, Edelman staff will be able to monitor what is being said about clients around the world. Since we have hundreds of clients with mutinational operations, what's being said in languages other than English is of particular relevance. Did you know that two-thirds of the 40-million+ blogs are not in English? In addition to returning blog results in the user's native language, the sites will break out the top 100 blogs in each language. Now we'll not only be able to determine who's saying what, but how influential the blogger is, as measured by inbound links. Why do people like Richard Edleman, Phil Gomes, Steve Rubel and I get so excited about this? Because we understand the enormous value this will help us bring our clients. Already, Edelman has done pioneering work on behalf of clients such as Xbox and Wal-Mart. That's one reason Edelman recently announced the formation of a new practice called the me2revolution specifically to understand, generate and participate in conversations in emerging channels. This announcement has the potential to revolutionize the way we practice the profession of public relations. The implications for crisis communications alone is mind-boggling. I can hardly wait to see how this new capability will affect the speed and completeness of how we make PR relevant for current and future clients.


Are you practicing preventative marketing? You are if your messages and delivery vehicles are irrelevant! I'm feeling a tad cranky today. I got the third irrevant e-mail from a guy we'll call Ted. He wants me to attend a session he'll be conducting on Saturday at which he PROMISES to teach me how to make more money. (Never trust someone who PROMISES in all caps.) In addition to the e-mails I've gotten once a week for a month now, I also got a handwritten postcard from Ted in which he spelled my name incorrectly (despite knowing me personally and using a mailing list from a professional organization we belong to). So I wrote to Ted and asked him to remove me from his e-mail list. I told him he was starting to irritate me. Amazingly, Ted responded with yet another e-mail in which he explained that he was practicing a marketing method he wants to teach me. He claims his "drip marketing" strategy of sending multiple e-mails and postcards usually results in driving enormous traffic to his seminars. He closed by pointing out that these notes that I found irritating were actually important tools I should learn. In other words, he's only irritating me for my own good. So not only is Ted annoying, he's condescending. What a powerful combination. No wonder people flock to his seminars. I tried in my usual charming, gentle way to let Ted know that I found his tactics to be both annoying and irrelevant. Apparently, my third note to him did the trick. He didn't write back. Maybe there really is something to this whole three-peat methodology. Here's the lesson for all of us: make sure your marketing messages are relevant to your audience. It's not always about you, after all. People want to know why they should give you their precious time and money. Focus on how the audience benefits from what you have to offer. And then make sure you're making your offer using the vehicle your audience wants you to use. Don't just do what's convenient for you, such as mass e-mails designed to look like a personal note. Common sense? You bet. But as my friend, Phil Van Hooser likes to say, "Common sense really isn't that common."


Have the Dixie Chicks become relevant? I really enjoyed the 60 Minutes interview with the Dixie Chicks tonight. It was nice to see them get some air time to bring us up to date on what they're thinking and why they have chosen to record a new album after three years out of the public spotlight. Though he didn't use these actual words, what Steve Croft was essentially trying to determine was how relevant the Chicks are today. For three years, most country music stations have refused to play their music. Many of the DJ's who took offense at Natalie Manes' comment in a London pub that she was ashamed that President Bush was from her state (Texas). At the time she made her statement, the war in Iraq was really heating up and Bush's popularity was high. The entire band, which was among the most popular in the world at the time, was "punished" by having their music taken off radio, thanks to immature, self-righteous program managers who worried more about losing a commercial sponsor than about that pesky little freedom of speech thing that raises its ugly head now and then. (As an aside, why is that country music stations never declared Willie Nelson "unpatriotic" when he failed for years to pay taxes? Instead, they helped him raise money.) Now the Chicks are back and have the number one most downloaded song on iTunes. As they explained on 60 Minutes, they haven't changed their anti-war stance, nor are they ready to apologize or do anything to win back the country music fans who abandoned them. Instead, they've produced an album full of music they like that reflects how they feel. The public be damned, in other words. It will be interesting to see how the Chicks are accepted, not just by country music fans, but by crossover fans as well. Bush's popularity is in the tank right now and more people than ever now agree with the Chicks' opinion on Bush. On the surface, then, it seems they just may make a big comeback and be seen as "relevant" just because the country, generally speaking, has shifted more in their direction. Relevance often has a short shelf life, so it's entirely possible that the Chicks will ride a wave for a while, then find themselves drowned out once more, based on an increase in Bush's popularity. The way they can remain relevant over the long haul is to either broaden their appeal or recreate themselves every time the wind blows. Personally, I hope they're wildly successful in this come-back and that they make the necessary crossover to other music fans so they remain relevant for a long time. I've been a huge fan for years and have all of their songs on my iPod, which I frequently put into loop mode. We can all learn a valuable lesson from the Dixie Chicks: we can create our own relevance or we can get lucky that we become relevant based solely on outside sources we can't control. The Chicks are either really lucky or really smart. I vote for the latter.


What watches and newspapers have in common: they're irrelevant, says my daughter Last weekend, my 16-year-old daughter, Sydney, and I decided to see a movie matinee, but we didn't know exactly what we wanted to see. So, I said to her, "Grab the newspaper - it's right over there beside my chair." "I'll just look it up online," she replied. Her thumbs went into hyper-mode and she furiously began banging away on her Sidekick. "Wouldn't it just be faster to get the paper?" I wondered aloud. "Maybe, but I'd rather look it up this way. Besides, the times are more usually more accurate online. I hate using a paper. You have to look too hard for stuff." Before I could offer an argument in praise of lowly newsprint, she said, "How about Akeelah and the Bee at 3:00?" As we drove to the theatre, I decided to quiz her further on her distaste for using a newspaper. I've read one daily since I was about 10 and now read at least three every morning by 8:00. I still like to turn the pages, study the actual placement of a story on the page, notice the size and type of font. All these are clues on how significant the editors thought the story was. In other words, seeing the physical paper actually makes stories MORE relevant to me, not less. Sydney feels exactly the opposite. Her argument was that reading the news online is more relevant because you can have an automatic filter send only the stories you are likely to be interested in. Ah ha! I had her on this point. I dreamily recalled all the fascinating things I've read and learned on my way to looking for something else. Not to be outdone, Sydney reminded me that with the time I wasted getting sidetracked, I could have read more stories I KNEW I'd be interested in because my filters would have sent them to me. I suppose our differing viewpoints are largely generational. And if recent numbers from the Newspaper Association of America are right, more people lean toward Sydney's viewpoint than mine. That's why newspaper circulation is falling while online news is growing like crazy. The good news is, smart editors will be able to find a way to keep their papers relevant to readers in my corner and those in Sydney's at the same time. Why not move more content online? There are many parts of a newspaper that probably lend themselves better to online coverage (stock listings, for example). I hope hard copy newspapers won't go the way of the dinosaur during my lifetime. Although I spend several hours a day online and am very comfortable with technology, there's just no substitute for the tactile experience a newspaper can offer. And though I read many publications online, I still don't think you can get the true essence of a story on a screen in the way you can when you're holding it. By the way, when Sydney and I left the theatre, I asked her what time it was. (I had forgotten to put my watch on and was feeling almost naked.) She looked at her phone, then answered. "Why don't you wear that lovely watch you got for your birthday?" "Why would anyone wear a watch?" she replied, seemingly puzzled. "All they can do is tell time."


Why I'm Hennessy Lexus's Biggest Fan Several of you have written to ask what I decided to do about buying a new car, given my unexpectedly bad experience trying to make a purchase off the Internet. Here's the scoop: I bought a 2006 Lexus IS250 from Hennessy Lexus in Atlanta. It really came down to service even more than the car itself. As I mentioned in my last blog entry, Lexus was the only dealer to honor its commitment to give me pricing via e-mail. A local Audi dealer sent four follow-up "we need to talk" e-mails and the salesman even called me by getting my number through directory assistance. It irritated me so much, I refused to even go in and look at the car. I never did hear from anyone at Infiniti about the G35 that caught my eye. And I ruled out the BMW after talking with a tow truck driver and a couple of mechanics, who opined that it was a beauty, but very high maintenance. Don Bonura at Hennessey sent me the information I requested by e-mail, then followed up with a nice e-mail letting me know he was there to help. No pushing. No "just come by for a drive," no gimmicks. Now there's a confident salesman! Exactly the kind I was looking for. When I did go by Hennesey, the first thing I noticed was a sign in the lobby. It read, "Compromise is an acquired skill. Acquire it elsewhere." At first this struck me as an odd message, even potentially off-putting. But after talking with Don and learning what options were available on the cars, it began to sink in what the sign really meant. Essentially, Lexus was sending a message that people don't drive their cars because they can't get what they really want. They drive a Lexus because it's their car of choice. I quickly discovered that the car I wanted was a little pricer than I intended to pay once I added the options I was interested in. I told Don it was just too rich for my taste right now. He didn't push. Instead, he told me he was ready to work with me when I was ready. After I went home and got to thinking about the banner I had seen in the lobby, I decided I wouldn't compromise. I'd buy the car with the package I wanted, period. "Settling" really wasn't an option. After two more visits, we struck a deal. At this point, I had taken a good bit of Don's time, yet he still gave me the Internet pricing as if I had bought the car sight unseen. And then came the kicker: they didn't have the color I wanted (Tungsten Pearl - an expensive name for Silver), but they found my car in Mississippi and paid to have it brought to me at no additional cost to me. Moreover, when I mentioned I'd be traveling in the next week, Hennesey pulled out all the stops to get the car to me the day before I was leaving town on a road trip. It was one of the most fun, memorable road trips I've ever taken. With each mile, I loved the car even more. I've purchased a dozen cars in my life and I've never gotten better service than I got at Hennessy. No wonder my friend, David Dempsey, has bought seven Lexuses (Lexi?) from Hennessey. What we have here is great Word-of-Mouth marketing combined with excellent service from a single salesman that resulted in a high-dollar purchase by someone who will now keep the good word going, as I'm doing here. The lesson here is simply this: there are a lot of shoppers like me. We know what we want, we know what we're willing to pay and we expect to be treated with courtesy and respect. That's not a lot to ask for, but apparently it's not as common as I'd like. What are you doing to ensure your clients are having a good experience every time they do business with you? If you're Don Bonura at Hennessy, you just follow the customer's lead.


Is your company using online communications in a relevant way? For the worst examples, try buying a car online! I spent several hours online yesterday car shopping. What a colossal disappointment. It has been five years since I bought a car and I had hoped and expected the experience to be better this go 'round. So far, it hasn't been very satisfying at all, primarily because of the irrelevance of the information I'm getting from car dealers. There are four specific cars I'm considering: Acura TL, Lexus IS 250, Audi Quattro 4, and Infinity G35 sedan. It was easy enough to find the metro Atlanta dealers who sold these models. Product reviews (www.caranddriver.com and www.edmunds.com ) and blogs about them were a snap to locate online. But when it came down to finding out what I really wanted to know, I felt rather let down. I had hoped online car buying had gotten more sophisticated by now. I used a single web site to get multiple local dealers to tell me what they had in stock and how much they would charge for an online purchase. Supposedly, by completing the form I would receive e-mails directly from the dealers with the information I requested. Only a Lexus dealer responded with what I wanted to know. The others all sent auto-generated e-mails letting me know they would call to discuss my needs. I e-mailed them back to tell them not to bother. Did I mention that all this online research and e-mailing happened in the wee hours of the morning? In other words, I specifically used the Internet because it enabled me to do my search at a time that was convenient for me. If I wanted to chat, I'd call during normal business hours. I will not do business with any of the dealers who sent an "I'll call you" note. (BTW, I used a fake phone number deliberately to prevent them from successfully reaching me). The way I see it, they've already demonstrated a lack of understanding about how online communications should work. Moreover, they've been disrespectful of my time. Why would I want to give them money? As part of my personal little protest, I will send each of the" losers" a link to this blog. So what's the lesson here (besides "Make Marilynn cranky and she'll tell everybody"?) If your company wants to do business with avid Internet researchers/purchasers like me, here's what you need to consider: 1. Remember that an Internet user may have no other contact with you other than online; therefore, every interaction counts. When someone sends an inquiry, it should be answered promptly and with relevant information. Countless tools now make it possible to set up auto-generated messages that appear to be a personal response. That's not just a nice touch... it's good business. 2. E-mail gives you a great opportunity to build community. It's irritating to ask for information online only to receive a response that you'll get it offline. People who are big on using the Internet for research and inquiries are handing you a golden opportunity to demonstrate you understand that convenience is paramount to them. Follow their lead and you'll build a sense of "these people understand me" before they ever darken your door. 3. Your web site should be a fulfillment point. Tell people what they want to know. In my car-buying example, I expected to be able to browse inventory at a dealer. Instead, most sites let me "build" my car and gave me a price, but I should be able to then find out instantly whether "my" car was available. No wonder CarMax sells so many cars - you're always just a few clicks away from knowing exactly what they have and how much it costs. 4. Be respectful of online users. Since sending my request for information, I've been inundated with irrelevant notes from financial institutions wanting to sell me a car loan to pitches for credit cards tied specifically to auto brands. I didn't ask for this information and I don't pay it a bit of attention except to make note if it's connected to any of the dealers I contacted so I'll know one more reason not to do business with them. People are becoming more comfortable with making high end purchases on the Internet. They're aslo quicker to blog about their experiences, as you can see here. Doesn't it just make sense to meet expectations up front and let go of the notion that customers always have to do business the way it has been done for eons?


Couric and McKinney provide great examples for studying relevance Finally! Katie Couric ended the speculation this morning by announcing she's going to CBS. Thank God. Not that she's going the CBS, but that the news media got a story they could gnaw on for at least the afternoon, temporarily giving them something to discuss besides the Cynthia McKinney story. I don't know which story is more obnoxious.... or, frankly, which will have longer legs. Speculation about Katie has been ongoing for about a year now so the actual announcement was rather anti-climatic. It will certainly be interesting to see how the story plays out once she goes on the air at CBS. Expect ratings to spike, at least temporarily, just because of the sheer number of pundits who will tune in to see if whether she brings the perkiness with her or if CBS tones her down some. If the network's goal is to bring in a younger viewing audience, thereby becoming more relevant to today's most sought-after consumers, she's probably a good choice. Stay tuned. It's too early to predict with any credibility how this strategic move will play out for CBS. One thing is for sure, CBS, nor any other network for that matter, will have to search for ways to fill the evening news. They all seem bound and determined to cover Cynthia McKinney's every asinine statement. Heaven knows, Soledad O'Brien tried to make the story relevant in her interview on CNN this morning, but Ms. McKinney, as usual, outright refused to answer most questions and instead hid behind her lawyer. When I drift off into fantasyland, I dream of reporters who will refuse to cover stories like this by cutting off guests who have no interest in bringing any relevance whatsoever to the story. A part of me feels sorry for the reporters. Many of them are assigned to cover the McKinney story no matter what. And yet another part of me wants take their laptops and microphones away until they promise to use these tools for the greater good, rather than to feed the ego of a self-centered politician. This whole McKinney debacle is starting to make me a bit cranky. This woman would accuse a person of being racist for killing a poisonous black snake chasing after a new-born puppy. It appears that her ego overrides everything else, including integrity and common sense. As long as she gets the news coverage she so desperately seeks, it doesn't much seem to matter whether it's positive, negative or even the least bit relevant. Sadly, her shenanigans are hurting her ability to bring credibility and focus to the very issues she claims to champion. She needs to shut up soon (like, this very moment) before she talks her way right out of any hope of remaining relevant.


From Podcasts to Godcasts, now's the time to get the word out to MP3 owners Lately, half the inquiries I get from clients are about podcasts. They seem to sense that podcasts are a good idea, but they're not quite sure what to do with them. My friend and colleague, Phil Gomes, has suggested that the only people who listen to podcasts are other podcasters. Phil says this because he's s devout blogger with a wicked sense of humor. My Mother would say he's a smarty pants. I don't know that I agree with Phil. I'm seeing podcasts start to really take off now. In fact, they're growing at twice the rate of blogs and no wonder. For corporations, they're easy to control, relatively inexpensive, and can reach audiences in a much more segmented way. Already we're seeing companies start to sponsor podcasts, often shifting money they had originally slated for radio advertising, because they realize it helps them reach people in a more targeted way. Dixie, for example, sponsors the Mommycast at $100,000 a year. Podcasts are a great way for companies to provide something of value that will cause people to want to do business with them, not necessarily because of a specific product or service, but because they trust the company more and want to reward it by throwing business their way. One great example I've seen of this lately is Whirlpool. The company offers a weekly podcast that has nothing to do with household appliances. The podcasts are called The American Family and they cover subjects like homeschooling, positive parenting and even retirement planning. No pitches for a new washer or dryer, and nary a single suggestion that the company's applicances will hold your family together. Rather, Whirlpool is simply sharing good information that demonstrates the company's values as a pro-family organization. Churches are embracing podcasts - often called Godcasts - faster than you can send a prayer to heaven. In fact, religious programming is in such demand, it has spawned a whole new industry of companies that provide it in various formats. Meanwhile, even the National Park Service is getting in on the act. They're using podcasts to educate people about parks and get them excited about visiting. My favorite is Glacier National Park in Montana. I predict we're going to see podcasting really take hold over the next year and before you know it, people will just expect companies to offer them, just like we expect every company today to have a web site. With summer coming up, maybe now is a great time for your company to think about how you can reach out to consumers who own MP3 players and iPods. (Did you know, by the way, that Jupiter Research predicts that 60 million Americans will have these devices within the next four years?). Think about it: people will be traveling in planes, trains and automobiles more than usual over the next few months. Wouldn't it be nice if they were spending part of their downtime listening to your podcast?


Blook 'em, Dano. Are you making money from your blog? Here's a fast, easy way. Well, we had to know it was coming... and now it has arrived. Bloggers are producing their entries in book form - called blooks - and the publishing industry is paying attention. Forget months, even years, of trying to find an agent. Scrap the notion that you have to have an expensive PR firm ready to pitch your latest tome to book reviewers and journalists. Bloggers have a distinct advantage over traditional authors: 1) many already have a dedicated following of readers; and 2) their blog provides the perfect free forum for letting people know about their blook. And what would a new genre be without an award to go with it? Already, there's a literary award designed specifically for blooks. It's called the Lulu Blooker Prize (a Raleigh NC-based self publishing service cleverly named the award after the famous Bristish Booker Prize). Some 16 blooks not associated in any way with Lulu have been selected as candidates for the inaugural awards, which will be announced on Monday, April 3. The one that seems to be getting the most hype is Julie and Julia, based on a popular blog about a woman who attempts in one year to cook every Julia Childs recipe. Little, Brown published the book just a few months ago and already it has sold over 100,000 copies, thanks in part to enthusiastic supporters of Julie's blog. Meanwhile, Lulu even has a place on its web site that provides a way for bloggers to instantly publish their own blook, with Lulu keeping 20 percent. Here's what you can expect next: tons of bloggers will start publishing blooks in part so they can lay claim to being a "published author." And why not? Authors of e-books have done this for years and legitimately so. A book doesn't need to have a designer book jacket and shelf space to make it valuable. The point is that this new blook phenomenon is going to eventually have a significant impact on the publishing business. I think we'll see a shift away from books that make it to the shelves just because they are associated with a celebrity in some way. Moreover, look for Amazon and similar sites to find ways to work with bloggers to make their blooks even more accessible and profitable. Expect companies to start releasing blooks about their own best practices as a passive revenue stream. The possibilities are practically endless. So why are you still reading this blog? Shouldn't you be starting your own or at least thinking about how to make money off your own blook?


Are you microchunking yet? Hurry! Consumers are catching on! Day by day, consumers are becoming increasingly more powerful. Pay attention to what's happening around you and look for ways your company can be more strategic and dynamic in the way it interacts with customers. Take the iPod, for instance. Already, it has completely changed the way people view music. People who own iPods rarely seek entire CD's to download; instead, they select the individual songs they want to have ready access to. The same holds true with TV shows and comedy routines. For only $1.99 per episode, we can hang onto what really care about and forget the rest. On my iPod, you'll find selected episodes of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Jay Leno's JayWalking, Law & Order, and a couple of movies, plus an eclectic collection of music and podcasts. Selecting just the things you want and ignoring the rest is what Business 2.0 calls "microchunking." It's a great word to describe the concept of breaking down the media we consume into small bite-size pieces. As consumers, we're quickly losing our patience for things that put much demand on our time. Another great example of how consumers are becoming more powerful is in how they use their cell phones. Now, thanks to ScanBuy, consumers can download onto their camera phones software that makes it possible to take a picture of a product's bar code. Scan Buy then instantly looks for where on the Internet you can buy the same product cheaper and will alert you. But wait! There's more! With one click- right there in the store - you can order the item and have it mailed directly to you. Essentially, you're shopping in several places at once and saving money at the same time. Is life good, or what? So what does this mean to your business? First, think about how you can apply "microchunking" to your products and services. Can you break a 30 minute webinar into six five-minute episodes? Do you guarantee the lowest prices? If so, are you checking Scan Buy to make sure you aren't being undersold? Don't wait for your customer just take the power from you. Empower them strategically. The scales are tipping. Move quickly before they fall on you and weigh you down.


Why you should care that the Top 10 cars are Japanese I've been car shopping for a few months now, wanting to make sure I make the right decision on my next purchase. So today's WSJ story about the latest results from Consumer Reports really caught my eye. It said that the latest findings indicated that ALL the cars to make the top 10 list are Japanese. It's the first time since the top 10 list was introduced in 1997 that an American car didn't make the cut. Of course, I immediately went to the list of which cars made it. My two favorites, the Acura TL and Infinity m35 were both there. Somehow, I felt validated and sad at the same time. I've been buying American cars for a long time and, for the most part, have been very happy with them. But my awful experience of owning a 1999 Cadillac Seville ST has caused me to turn an eye toward foreign cars for the first time. There's an excellent chance my next vehicle will not be American. The bottom line: the American auto makers are becoming less relevant to me by the day. In a three year period, it cost $18,000 to fix "minor" things wrong with my Cadillac. Luckily, I had purchased an extended warranty, so most expenses were covered. Still, I've spent over $2,000 just in deductions. What's worse, my local Cadillac dealer hasn't seemed the least bit concerned about this. In fact, when I complained that the car drank two quarts of oil every 1,000 miles, I was told, "That's not so unusual, especially in a high performance car." I've always felt dismissed, even bamboozled, when I dealt with Cadillac. I mistakenly thought that luxury cars were backed by luxury service. Sadly, this story of disapointment in performance, compounded by irritation at bad service, is playing out in many industries, not just the car business. Like the Big 3 American auto makers, many companies are getting arrogant and complacent about their offerings. It's easy to think when you're on top that just because you climbed the mountain and reached the peak, you'll stay there. It just doesn't work that way. Relevance must be earned every day. What about you? Are you riding a high right now? If so, what's your plan to stay there?


Think your company's key messages really sing? So what. Over the past few weeks, since I joined Edelman, I've had the opportunity to conduct some key message development sessions. Essentially, these are information gathering meetings in which we attempt to uncover the most relevant messages about a company and its products/services so that we can create an appropriate PR campaign. We always focus on three specific audiences: Influencers, Recommenders, and Decision Makers. Why? Because if you can identify the messages you want to communicate and which methods work for reaching these three groups, then developing everything from press releases to marketing collateral to case studies becomes a breeze. It never ceases to amaze me how difficult it can be to get a group of people from the same company to agree on what the key messages are. Each person sees the company's strengths and weaknesses from a different perspective. They love to talk about what their area of the business does well. What I like to do is ignite their passion (and sometimes ire) by responding with "so what." That's how you get the relevance of a message. "So what" requires the person making a declaration to back it up with facts and anecdotes, as well as consider - one more time - how what they're saying is relevant to the Influencer, Recommender or Decision Maker. Once the messages are defined, we get to start the fun part, brainstorming. My friend and colleague, Sam Horn is absolutely masterful at brainstorming. Her upcoming book, POP! (How to Stand Out In Any Crowd) includes several valuable tactics and techniques that are guaranteed to yield results. (POP is an acronym for Purposeful, Original and Pithy.) Sam argues that to be one of of a kind instead of one of many, a message has to POP! I couldn't agree more. I also agree with her that brainstorming is a process that, when followed properly, brings a focus you may not get otherwise. How about you? Are you absolutely certain your company has the right messages and that those messages are being delivered in the right way? If not, now is as good a time as any to POP! to it. Just remember, no matter what the answer, the response should be "So what" Let me know how you do.


How Coverage of the Olympic Games Serves as a Model for Staying Relevant in Business I'm sitting in front of the TV watching the Olympics as I write this. Ordinarily, I'm not much of a sports fan. I love college (and some pro) football but will watch other sports only when there is a title on the line. Going to the movie theater to see "Glory Road" or "Remember the Titans" is usually about as involved in athletics as I am interested in undertaking. The Olympics are different, though. Thanks to great media coverage, the Olympic games feel much more relevant to me than most sporting events. Why? For exactly the same reason movies appeal to me: I love great storytelling. And when the Olympics are on, we get to see storytelling at its best. In a matter of moments I can go from having no idea who an athlete is to really, really caring how well he or she does in competition. I watch sports I normally wouldn't think twice about just because I feel an emotional connection with the athlete, thanks to the wonderful heartwarming stories I see and read in the days leading up to specific events. The Olympic games provide particularly fertile ground for those features known as "The Hero's Journey," stories about obstacles overcome, joys shared, deamons faced and surprises revealed. Combine this with the fact that American pride is at stake and suddenly I actually feel a physical reaction to what I'm watching. I get engaged and root for "my" competitor (you know, the one I wasn't even aware of yesterday!). This kind of connection doesn't have to be limited to sports. Smart businesses understand the power of making their products relevant to their buyers/users. Remember, relevant companies are Strategic, Proactive, Universal, and Dynamic (the SPUD approach). It's true that people buy with their hearts and justify with their brains. Don't overlook the opportunity to use storytelling to educate and sell to your customers. If you don't think you have a story or you don't know why it matters, get thee to a PR counselor. The best ones excel at storytelling in a meaningful way. You may even find that in the process of uncovering the story you want to tell others, you and your employees will reconnect in new ways as well.


My Obligatory Comments on Superbowl Ads If you're not already sick to death of hearing about the Superbowl ads, maybe this blog will do it for you. It's after 5:00 on Monday, so I must be one of the last people with a blog who's taking time to weigh in on the subject. I loved the Dove commercial. It was a wonderful surprise and break from the typical "let's make 'em laugh" approach. If the point of spending millions on that one Sunday a year is to be memorable, Unilever certainly did it for me. As the mother of two daughters, I so appreciated the boldness of doing such a straightforward, thoughtful ad at a time when so many eyes were glued to the TV. As for enjoyable ads, I loved the Bud Lite rooftop commercial. It was very clever and a great way to connect with women in the audience. We've always suspected you guys were "up to something." To take the phrase so literally (and metaphorically) was brilliant. I also laughed out loud at the Sprint ad in which the guy tells his friend his phone is a crime deterrent. I loved how unexpected and clever the ad was. And, although I'm a loyal drinker of all things Coke-related (I am a huge, huge fan of Coke Zero in particular), I confess I thought the Pepsi ads were clever. What all these ads had in common was they were relevant in some way to the vieweing audience unlike ads that seemed to be created for the sole purpose of showing us how clever the ad agency was. (The Burger King ad was one of the worst I've ever seen. FedEx made me smile, but I didn't connect with it in any way.) The one thing that fascinated me most about this year's Super Bowl, though, was that the ads got as much media coverage as the game. Today people are downloading their favorite commercials and sharing them on their iPods. Wow. These would be the same people who bought Tivo to AVOID ads! Incredible. Even the Wall Street Journal carried a page online that let readers vote for their favorite ads at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB113898059693064472.html?mod=todays_us_marketplace Pay attention to this new trend toward ads becoming true entertainment. You'll see this continue, showing up on your cellphone, attached to movies you download from iTunes,you name it. As long as the advertisers can make the ads seem relevant (by making them very targeted) people won't mind, and in fact, may even begin to look forward to seeing ads. Wouldn't that just be a kick in the pants!


Sometimes Being Relevant Means Getting Very Creative I have a 16-year-old daughter who absolutely loves to sing. She's pretty good at it too. I'm not sure where she got the talent - certainly not from me (I can't even hum) - but it's gratifying to see her constantly searching for new ways to use her beautiful voice. When she started her junior year of high school in August, she was especially excited about being selected to join the Chamber chorus at school. It's a group of extraordinarily talented singers who perform primarily classical pieces. I confess I wasn't as excited about this as she was. I'm more your Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Martina McBride sort of gal. I can't say I've ever found a lot of relevance in music that was popular with Kings and Gladiators. But she assured me I would learn to love the Chamber chorus. Well, she was right. I have - not because my redneck ears have suddenly acquired more sophisticated tastes, but because the Chamber chorus has found a way to make the music more relevant. As a Chamber group, they perform in very elaborate costumes, which are custom made and quite impressive in their detail. (No, I didn't make hers, but I did personally craft the check that paid for it.) For their annual Madrigal feast recently, the students performed a play they wrote themselves. It was an absolute hoot! They were told they could do whatever they liked, as long as the characters were the same as what one expects in a castle in the 1600s. The music each sang could be from any era. The scenario was that the King and Queen were holding a contest to find talented people in the kingdom. So, here's what they came up with: The King - Elvis The Queen - Latifa The Prince - Prince The Princess - Lisa Marie Presley The Knight - her name was Gladys and yes, she had Pips The Supremes - Taco Supreme, Burrito Supreme and Nacho Supreme (their lead apparently had been kidnapped by the Phantom, so they sang only the background with no melody - too funny!) The Phantom - Michael Jackson The Jackson 5 - (An obscure family from the kingdom of Pop) Michael had disappeared, so he was replaced by Randy Jackson from American Idol. Of course, MJ surprised everyone at the end when it was revealed that he was the man behind the mask. As a result of this tossed-salad approach to a Madrigal feast, an event I was dreading actually became one I wanted everyone to see. It was hilarious! Moreover, it served as a wonderful lesson about how far a little imagination can go. I loved that the chorus teacher kept telling the kids, "Make it relevant... the idea is to show off your talent as singers, not to prove you understand the whole Chamber music concept. That's what our Masterworks concerts are for." Wow! How often do we as adults remember that sometimes the best thing to do is step back and look at how we can make our skills relevant simply by applying them in a different way from what is expected?


Oprah Humbled by Online Community It's not often one gets to see Oprah Winfrey backpedal, but she sure started doing it today and she has the online community to thank for her precarious situation. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know by now that Oprah's book choice, "A Million Little Pieces" has created quite a controversy. The author, James Frey, was "outed" by the Smoking Gun web site (www.smokinggun.com)when it questioned Frey's truthfulness, particularly about time he said he spent in prison. Within moments of publishing the investigative report, bloggers went crazy offering their own opinion on whether Oprah should withdraw her support for Frey. After all, she was a major contributor to the book's meteoric rise on the bestseller lists. Frey appeared on Larry King and admitted he played loose with the truth in the book. Amazingly, Oprah called in to offer her continued support, suggesting that the overriding story - that Frey overcame a serious drug addiction to become a role model - was more important that the details of story. She said his inspirational story was what was "relevant," rather than the specifics behind the story. Well, today she finally fell on her sword, telling Frey on her show that she felt "duped" by him and now found it hard to talk with him. Oh really? So what happened to the whole relevance thing, O? I think I know. As soon as Oprah realized that her support of Frey was drawing massive criticism and making her look bad for appearing to support a liar, she suddenly saw the light and tried to turn the tide. She figured by bringing him back on the show, along with some journalists to comment on the situation, she could "set the record straight" that she does, in fact, highly respect the truth. I, for one, ain't buying the Big O's mea culpa. She either got some bad PR advice or chose to ignore good advice from the get-go, probably believing she knew best (she is, after all, an expert on just about everything). Interestingly - and not surprisingly - this whole controversy has created a windfall for Frey. Sure, he's a little humiliated (btw, he said the old deamons that drove his addiction caused him to lie too) but his book continues to sell like hotcakes. What's the lesson we can learn from this? 1) NO ONE, not even the O herself, is immune from criticism in an online world. Bloggers and web site publishers can make your life very difficult (or wonderful, depending on their opinions); 2) Controversy lives a much longer life now, thanks to the online writers and readers. You can't afford to ignore them. Moreover, you certainly can't afford to irritate them; 3) Relevant companies stay relevant by planning for controversies. Strategic crisis plans are an essential part of a company or celebrity's reputation management. They are no longer a "nice to have." They're a MUST HAVE; 4) The online world will continue to have enormous influence in how people think. Embrace bloggers and online publishers. They're just as real as the talking head you see every night on the evening news, but potentially way more powerful. We know Oprah will eventually overcome this debacle and move onto something else. She's lucky that way because her celebrity status allows her a platform to constantly defend herself until the story gets old or a new one comes along to replace it. Unless you're as famous as Oprah (and if you were, you probably wouldn't have time to read this blog), start thinking about how you can use her experience to your advantage.


Is it Time to Try a New Approach to an Old Problem? Last night while having dinner with a friend who works for a major technology company, she shared with me her concerns about how hard it is to get the hundreds of people in her organization to tune into twice-monthly teleconferences. The information being provided could help them do their jobs more effectively, so why couldn't they find an hour every couple of weeks to learn something that would help them sell more? I suggested she offer the educational sessions as a podcast in addition to the teleconferences. We live in an on-demand world where people have become used to getting what they need on their own schedule. It's a lot easier to accommodate people's work styles than it is to insist they accommodate your delivery method. Podcasts are a great solution, especially for remote workers, a sales force that's often on the road, and people who have long commutes. I live in Atlanta where traffic is so bad, it takes a while just to get out of my subdivision, never mind drive a substantial distance. I often use my car as a "university on wheels." Since I am usually alone while crawling along I-75 wondering why we have HOV lanes, I have plenty of time to learn something new. I am not very likely to pick up a cell phone and call into a teleconference or even a recording of the previous day's teleconference; however, I'm very likely to download onto my iPod something I want to learn more about and plug it into my car stereo. I'd rather use the hour at my desk for something I can't do while driving (like, take a nap!). My friend saw my point, but expressed the concern that a podcast could reduce the number of people who call in, thereby reducing the number who ask questions and actively participate in the discussion. Here's my take on that: people who are interested in participating in a live discussion aren't likely to be the same people who want to download a podcast. Besides, one doesn't have to be a part of the discussion to gain value from it. Listening to what others ask is a valuable part of the learning process. Consider your own business. Are you so stuck on doing things the way you've always done them that you're reluctant to try something new? Do you too easily dismiss new technology because it doesn't appeal to you personally? Relevance requires us to be dynamic, to look for ways to be fresh and appealing in the moment. Don't discard tried-and-true tactics, but always look for ways to integrate new communication vehicles to deliver your messages. It isn't likely you'll ever find the magic bullet that solves all your communications challenges. That's why you need to have an entire arsenal at the ready.


How I Know What Really Happened at CES (hint: The NYT didn't mention it) I confess I've always wanted to attend the Consumer Electronics Show, which just wrapped up in Las Vegas. As soon as it opens, I begin following the news to see what kind of cool tech gadgets will captivate attendees and grab the attention of the media. CES is a type of barometer for relevance. It's where companies roll out "the next big thing" and predict the future for technology, which usually means the future of our lifestyles. Like most people, I read and heard about what the keynoters had to say and I perked up when I learned about some of the new products coming out of major companies. But frankly, it wasn't the evening news or even in the daily papers that I found out what I really wanted to know. The lanyard-wearing geeks actually at the show gave the real scoop. CES offered bloggers an amazing amount of fodder. I loved reading the reactions of attendees and seeing through their eyes what the future looked like. It's far more interesting to me to hear what a bytehead with worn sneakers thinks about CES than to see a polished evening news report that has been edited to death. That's the beauty of blogs... they're immediate, real, uncensored and equalizing. I read accounts of CES from CEOs whose companies exhibited, to journalists, to spouses of attendees. It's buzz marketing at its best. I checked out companies I probably would have never heard of unless I had read about them on a blog. THAT's the power of this medium. Terry Brock, a syndicated columnist for the American Business Journals, and a good personal friend of mine (www.terrybrock.com) wrote daily reports about his experience at CES and even included little movies he produced right on the spot where he walked into the booths of lesser known companies and interviewed the exhibitors about what they had to offer. He was, in essence, an "imbedded journalist" reporting from the front lines. I was grateful to have his perspective on what's "hot." HIs reports, combined with those of other attendees helped me get a real sense of what really went on. If your company is attending a trade show, whether it's an industry-specific event or a more general show like CES, consider how you might create buzz about your offerings by blogging right from the show. You might be surprised how many other bloggers and blog readers are in the hotel rooms surrounding you! Better yet, what a great way to reach people all over the world who can't attend the shows and who don't have access to the trade journals that cover them. Relevance is often driven by speed and I think blogs offer us a way to quickly show our relevance in a fun, casual way that just can't be as effectively accomplished through press releases and video news releases.


Movie theaters struggle to remain relevant: why it may not work Over the holidays, I engaged in one of my all-time favorite activities: going to the movies. At one point, I realized I had seen 8 movies in 10 days in 5 different theaters. I feel about movies like my daddy feels about fishing: there's no such thing as a bad day when it's spent doing that particular activity. One thing that really jumped out at me during all this concentrated movie-going experience was how theaters are struggling to remain relevant. You probably already know that theater attendance is down significantly. It would be easy to assume it's because Hollywood isn't producing much that's worth plopping down eight bucks or more to see. But that's only part of the reason theaters are in trouble. The fact is, people just don't see as much reason to go to the theater as they once did. After all, movies are released on DVD very quickly after release to theaters; the price of going to a movie is continuing to skyrocket; and people are starting to lose patience with the rude behavior of fellow movie goers who insist on leaving their cell phones turned on or fail to refrain from talking during the flick. Problem is, it hasn't been so long ago that theathers spent millions upgrading to more comfortable stadium style seating and state-of-the-art sound systems. Now they're stuck with a huge mortgage, so to speak, and nobody wanting to live at home. Some of the promotional gimmicks I saw during my tour of theaters recently included: > Special showings of old rock concerts ("See it on the big screen with other fans!") > Discounted group rates for private viewings (churches buy out films like Narnia) > Theater rental for business meetings (comfortable, great audio/video capability) > Frequent movie goer cards (the 10th one is on us!) > Videoconferencing capabilities (see your fellow employees 20 feet tall!) > Showing old movies that have been colorized or refurbished in some way Most of these seem like good ideas, but so far, nothing has caught fire with the viewing public yet. (The closest is discounted rates for single groups, but it's not like there are many movies that can command that kind of loyalty.) Interestingly, the two things theater owners don't seem to be doing are reducing prices for tickets and concessions, and getting rid of those irritating commercials that delay the movie for as much as 17 minutes. Yet, every article I've read about the drop in movie attendance cites these two factors as the top reasons people have reduced the number of times they attend movies. (This reminds me of the old story about the guy who wanted to make $100 selling apples, but instead of pricing 200 apples at 50 cents decided to sell two apples at $50 each. He never sold an apple.) As I see it, theater owners are focusing too much on how to recoup the cost of their renovations and not concentrating enough on what the customer really wants. They're solving a low tech problem with a high tech solution. In other words, they seem to look at the format of the theater and the technology available and dream up other ways to use them. Truly relevant organizations are those that are willing to take customer feedback and do something constructive with it, rather than try to convince the customer what their feedback should be. I once heard an executive explain that the reason his company was going to produce a particular product, despite no apparent demand for it, was because "Customers don't really know what they want. It's our job to lead them in the right direction." I haven't checked, but a part of me can't help but wonder if he left that software company to manage a theater company.


How Your Gift-Buying Habits Can Change Lives As is my habit, I spent some time shopping over the Thanksgiving weekend. Nothing gets me in the Christmas spirit quite like being pushed and shoved or standing in long lines to make a purchase I've convinced myself wouldn't be available if I waited even another hour. I always go home feeling as though I've accomplished something just short of amazing. Well, it turns out this year, maybe I did. I couldn't help but notice during my mall crawl how much more cause-related marketing there seems to be than ever before. Everywhere I turned I saw signs telling me that a certain percentage of the purchase price will be donated to a specific cause. Some stores carried the magnifying glass symbol that we've come to know as a sign that the company supports St. Jude's Research. (Marlo Thomas has worked tirelessly to spread the word, appearing on countless talk shows and in frequent TV commercials.) Other stores offered everything from rubber bracelets (ala Lance Armstrong's Live Strong bracelet) to free lapel pins with a purchase, to an actual price tag advertisement explaining where the money goes. Apparently, many companies are finally getting the message: aligning with a worthy cause actually helps to grow business. That's not just intuition talking, by the way. According to Business for Social Responsibility, there is increasing evidence that companies that contribute to their communities see an increase in profitability, employee retention, customer loyalty, and increased brand reputation. Some companies have even reported that cause-related marketing has resulted in more innovation within the company. People like feeling connected to a mission. They want to believe the work they produce or the products they buy have relevance beyond just themselves. A recent study by Deloitte and Touche bears this out. Some 72 percent of respondents said that if they had the opportunity to choose between two companies in the same location, all things being equal, they would choose the one that contributed to charitable causes. Hitching your wagon to a cause should be a strategic decision. It's nice to ask everyone to bring in a toy once a year, but that's not what I'm advocating here. True corporate philanthropy isn't an event - it's a philosophy and strategy that transcends a specific holiday season or a single catastrophy. What is your company doing to expand its relevance beyond just providing excellent service or a top notch product? Whether you call it corporate philanthropy or cause-related marketing, it's important to think this issue through and make wise decisions. I recommend you poll your employees to explore what is important to them in terms of contributing to the community. Find out what they care about when they're not at the office. Generate enthusiasm and commitment by soliciting ideas and conducting extensive research on the best way to implement the suggestions. This year, while you're out shopping, pay attention to ways companies are aligning themselves with charities. It may give you just the inspiration and push you need to make your own move.


Let 'er Rip! Nestle Changes Product Packaging: Why It Matters If you love chocolate and ice cream as much as I do (and I doubt that's possible), you'll be delighted to learn that Nestle has made it a priority to help us get into its packages of culinary sin faster and easier than ever before. Yes, there's an obesity problem in America, but it isn't caused by easy-open packages; it's caused by easy-open mouths, so if you're the anti-snacking type, grab a carrot or grape, but stick with me to see why all this matters. Our eating and drinking habits have changed in many ways over the years, but perhaps most significantly in the way we want food packaged. Research shows that consumers love individual size servings of our favorite snack foods and are willing to pay a premium for them. Yet, we complain a lot about how hard they can be to get into. The complaints aren't just from couch potatoes who want to be able to hang onto the remote while opening something with one hand, either. Often, it's children and baby boomers who struggle most with stubborn packages that can survive being rapidly shipped around the world only to be slowed between the hand and the mouth because they out-engineered the typical consumer's dexterity. Wisely, Nestle decided to invest a significant amount of money -- about 10 percent of its revenue -- to ensure its products met the needs of snackers. Essentially, they're demonstrating the D in SPUD - Dynamic - in the best possible way. They're watching how their products are consumed, paying close attention to buyers' complaints, and taking action as quickly as possible. That's what it takes to remain relevant. In fact, the company even requires its packaging experts and suppliers to annually submit plans for ways to improve packaging. Let's face it: there are a lot of companies vying for our snack money. It's easier than ever for us to move on to something new for a reason as simple as "I don't like the way the lid comes off." The secret to Nestle's ability to give consumers what they want is that the company doesn't just rely on its internal brainpower and instincts. For instance, to find out how consumers of its PowerGel actually use the product, they sent researchers to stand on the sidelines of a marathon and observe the way runners opened the package. They saw a majority rip open the package using their teeth and try (often unsuccessfully) to squeeze out the entire contents without breaking stride. They discovered that the long neck on the package actually slowed the gel, making it difficult to ooze out quickly, therefore requiring multiple squeezes. So, they went back to the drawing board, threw away their assumptions about the advantages of a long, narrow package, and came up with a triangular-shaped top that will control the flow while still fitting comfortably in the runner's mouth. It will hit shelves within the next few months. Nestle offers a great role model for the rest of us. All products are packaged, whether they're a snack, an off-the-shelf piece of technology, or even a service. What are you doing to ensure your packaging remains relevant? Great content, whether in the form of chocolate bites or gigabytes, isn't enough any more in our "on the go" society where faster and easier is almost always perceived as better. Make sure you aren't losing customers or potential customers because of something that can be changed, sometimes easily. This applies to everything from a written proposal (is it easy to read, understand, act on?) to the way your product is delivered. (By the way, if you want to see how masterfully delivery can be handled, check out RedEnvelope.com.) And if you do happen to produce a product in chocolate and want to know if the packaging needs improvement, please send it to me. I'll get right back to you!


If You're Not Offering Downloadable Products, You're A SPUD Dud! As a professional speaker and author, I'm always on the lookout for new technology and delivery methods that can produce income while providing additional value for my clients. I got pretty excited, then, when I read a story in Friday's New York Times, followed by one in today's Wall Street Journal. The NYT piece was about how Amazon and Google are exploring ways to offer books by the chapter -- or even by the page -- as downloadable files, just like music and (now) videos/television shows. Readers would pay pennies per page to read a book on demand, a great offering for collections of poetry, essays, stories, recipes and lessons, to name a few. Imagine the possibilities! Gullible people all over the world could walk around with the "chicken poop" series at their fingertips. In fact, I predict Canfield and Hansen will soon produce a "Chicken Soup for the iPod Owners Soul." Meanwhile, today's WSJ reported that in the three weeks since the video iPod hit the market, over ONE MILLION videos have been downloaded from Apple's iTunes site. This is pretty impressive, given that the availability of TV shows, music videos and movies is still quite limited. The mix of what was downloaded was particularly interesting. The number one video? Michael Jackson's 1983 video, "Thriller." Who'd have guessed a video produced six noses ago would become such a hit again! These two stories gave me an idea. Authors and speakers have an opportunity to jump on the iPod bandwagon in a big way. Why not buy the video iPod in bulk (especially months or a year from now when the price drops) and load it up with the products they now offer as part of their back-of-the-room sales? Many speakers/authors/consultants have produced wonderful training modules, speeches, books, DVDs, you name it. Since many bundle these items anyway and sell them for several hundred dollars, perhaps this new delivery method would be the "ultimate bundle." Just think of the reduction in shipping costs alone! I envision the end user even choosing between hearing an author read his/her book, watching a video of a speech version of the book, or reading it the old fashioned way. Obviously, speakers and authors could (and should) also offer their goods as individual downloadable products on their web sites for the millions of people who already own iPods and MP3 players. This concept of marrying printed documents, such as books, with videos applies to many businesses beyond speaking and writing, of course. Many companies have ample opportunity to add a whole new dimension to the way they do business. Remember, to remain relevant, you have to apply the SPUD concept to everything you do. Be Strategic and Proactive. Create Universal appeal. And above all, be Dynamic (always on the lookout for new opportunities). Think about your training modules, web casts, product demos, sales pitches and instruction manuals. Maybe it's time to infuse them with the sex appeal these new technologies offer. Just don't use my name for it - the iSPUD. :-)


Even a Future King Worries About Remaining Relevant If you've ever wondered what Prince Charles considers the most difficult and important part of his job as Prince of Wales, wonder no more. He told Steve Croft on "60 Minutes" Sunday night that he struggles most with remaining relevant. Not exactly the answer most viewers probably expected. Many, no doubt, thought the hardest thing he deals with is paparazzi or a cranky mother. We're used to reading about his bad behavior, family tifts, speculation on how he treats his sons, and decisions he has made that has convinced many of his countrymen that he isn't worthy of the throne. Apparently, in his spare time, though, he finds time to raise over $200 million for 29 charities and represent the royal family at over 500 events a year. The fact is he is the most proactive prince Great Britain has ever had. He takes his role very seriously, even when the tabloids and critics don't. This prince believes the secret to remaining relevant is "putting my money where my mouth is" and "creating models on the ground." Croft pointed out to viewers that it was Prince Charles who first built a mixed-use planned community that brought together people of different income levels and education living and working side by side. He also pioneered organic farming over 20 years ago and it has since become a huge business in the United Kingdom. I'm sure many viewers were left with a more positive impression of Prince Charles. We learned that, to him, the essence of relevance is having influence. Not a bad definition, huh? One key lesson I took away from the Prince's interview is this: remaining relevant is, in fact, a struggle, whether it's being attempted by an individual or a company. It requires having a Strategy, being Proactive, finding a Universal appeal, and always being Dynamic. Even then, it's easy for our most relevant work to be overshadowed by things that are temporary and, well, irrelevant (such as spills from polo ponies, extramarital affairs, arguments with the Queen, etc.). Most of us will never have the opportunity to be interviewed by "60 Minutes" so we can let the world know what's really important to us. But we each can find 60 minutes each day to reflect on what we're doing to remain relevant to our constituents. Get busy... the clock is ticking!