Running a PR Agency – Big or Small, Challenges Remain the Same

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Council of PR Firms‘ Boston roundtable, to discuss industry and agency issues with fellow Boston agency leaders. This was my second time attending this annual event, and I again came away inspired, energized, reassured and enthusiastic. The folks I was lucky enough to sit around the “asylum white” Board room with at Weber Shandwick included agency leaders in executive management, HR and business development from large, global firms such as Porter Novelli, Weber and Fleishman-Hillard, to midsize and smaller agencies such as CHEN PR and March Public Relations. In all, there were about 20 of us who talked about what’s looking up in the PR industry, how PR has evolved since the advent of social and digital media, HR and recruitment challenges, the integration of advertising, digital, social, mobile and video into PR campaigns and much more. We spent a great deal of time talking about measurement – what clients want, how we provide it and what tools and strategies we are using to get there.

The thing that I always find most interesting about meeting with my industry colleagues – some of them even competitors – is that we all face similar issues. Large or small, focused on tech or healthcare or consumer PR – the agency challenges are always along the same lines. As the owner of one of the smaller agencies, I love to hear that we are successfully navigating the same issues that agencies of any size do – how to motivate staff, how to identify and hire the right people for our culture, how to juggle client demands with realistic budgets. It reminds me that sometimes getting together with your “frenemies,” as I like to call them, benefits everyone. Here are some of the issues that resonated across the board:

Recruiting. Currently, the biggest challenge is finding social and digital experts who understand communications strategy and PR. It’s easy to find one or the other, but the combination of both is valuable and rare. PR folks –that’s an open invitation to you to hone your social and digital skills and surpass those “social media experts” for jobs that require knowing more than how to Tweet. What’s the real value in using these tools in a strategic communications campaign?

HR. One of the big issues on the table was telecommuting and virtual work. I am obviously – as an owner of one of the first and most successful virtual agencies – fortunate to not have to deal with a traditional office environment where executive staff is trying to figure out how to provide the opportunity for employees to work from home some of the time. That balancing act can get tricky – providing the perk without it getting out of control, managing expectations between management and staff and still keeping employees motivated and happy. Almost every agency provides the opportunity to work from home some of the time for some of their employees, but much was discussed about how this affects training of junior staff, expectations from clients, and the overall culture. Apparently the new wave of workers expects this perk, so agencies are navigating their way and trying some interesting combinations of integrating virtual work with traditional office environments. Other topics on the HR front were how to manage employee demands for more and better perks, investment in training and opportunities for growth from within, as well as the return of bloated salary requests. We were all enthusiastic about joining an HR roundtable next to continue to inform one another and discuss these issues – helping to keep the industry in check.

Client Expectations. This is always a topic of discussion and I was glad to hear that budgets all around are returning to a more realistic level to align with the results desired by clients. Remember, you really do get what you pay for in PR. You can’t expect to saturate the market if you don’t put the proper investment behind that (money, time and executive commitment and belief). Remember what Bill Gates allegedly said about his last dollar

Measurement and Proof of Value. Speaking of client expectations, the burden of proof of reaching those expectations continues to drive discussions within all agencies. We talked about using tools such as Radian 6 and (our PerkettPR client) uberVU. We discussed the value of measuring how our promotions are driving traffic, sales leads, brand awareness and more – but the challenge remains to find the exact best way to do this. There is no PR industry standard and furthermore, clients don’t want to pay extra for it. The burden of proof is on PR firms – and how the different agencies handle that is all over the place. (On a self promotional note, our agency is working on a tool that fellow firms will definitely find of value – stay tuned for our launch this Fall.)

Competition. A great deal of discussion was spent on how PR agencies are taking business not from each other, but from other entities such as advertising agencies, digital houses and even the new found “social media” agencies. The common belief – and trend we’re all seeing – is that the shiny new ball syndrome of hiring an entire agency to execute social media is quickly fading. Social media is simply a new set of tools, not an enlightenment of communications strategy for newbie professionals who have never dealt with brand strategy, corporate crisis and more. The competitive landscape is wider, but PR is holding its own, as effective communications that illicit the proper actions continues to be key. Also hot for PR agencies is adding staff for mobile, digital and video content. Most agencies are moving from outsourcing this type of position to owning it in-house with a dedicated team or position.

I do believe there were a few laughs when I mentioned that the telephone has been around for quite a while, but it certainly doesn’t make everyone good at communicating. It’s true – and neither do social media tools. This is why the PR industry is not dying. We’re thriving – and our 2012 budgets and client rosters continue to reflect that truth. I can’t wait to see what 2013 brings to us as an industry.

If you’re a PR executive or agency, what trends are you seeing in the above areas? How are you navigating the changes discussed (or the traditional issues we all still face)?

Thanks to Weber for hosting, and to Matthew Soriano and the Council for including me. And of course, to my industry colleagues for participating. It’s always a pleasure learning from you all.

PS Head on over to the Council’s website for more industry stats, insights and information! It’s  a great resource.

“Effective Executives” Series with Bill Piwonka, Janrain’s VP of Marketing

This week’s “Effective Executives” interview is with Janrain‘s VP of Marketing, Bill Piwonka. Bill’s background is firmly rooted in B2B marketing operations. Over the past 20 years he has led marketing teams and initiatives spanning strategy, product marketing, product management, demand generation, marketing communications and business development. Prior to joining Janrain, Bill was the vice president of marketing at EthicsPoint. He has also held marketing management positions at Centennial Software, Serena Software, MeasureCast, WebTrends, Intel and Oracle. Bill earned a Master of Business Administration from The Wharton School at the The University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor of Arts in quantitative economics from Stanford University.

We caught up with Bill and asked him about his leadership style, how marketing has adapted to the changing economy and what is next for Janrain for the remainder of 2012.

Can you tell us a little bit about Janrain and your role?

Janrain is a leader in providing User Management solutions for the Social Web.  You’ve probably encountered our technology many times without even realizing it.  You have, if you’ve ever been offered the opportunity to login or register on a website using an existing identity from a social network such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo!, LinkedIn, etc. – rather than fill out an onerous registration form.  Not only does offering social login help business by increasing registration conversion rates, decreasing cart abandonment on eCommerce sites, improving data quality of the user database and reducing support costs from not having to respond to lost username/password requests, it also can significantly improve efficacy of marketing programs.  That’s because when a user logs in using a social identity, the business has the opportunity to ask for access to a rich set of profile characteristics, such as interests (e.g. music, sports, movies…), location, friends, birthdays and more.  This data can then be used to more finely segment customers and deliver richer online experiences and targeted promotions and offers.

At Janrain, I am responsible for overseeing our marketing efforts, including driving demand for our solutions, preparing our sales team for success and launching new products, services and solutions.

What kind of data do you use to make marketing decisions? Analytics apps, etc.?

We are very much a data-driven organization, even though we are still relatively small.  As an organization, we use Salesforce.com for CRM, Act-On Software for Marketing Automation, and Google Analytics for web traffic.  From these solutions, I monitor which campaigns are driving the highest quality leads, the health of our sales pipeline, our sales cycle length, average sales price, win/loss percentage, cost per lead, sales funnel conversion rates and a host of other metrics.  I encourage my team to take risks and try new things, but I want to know if those efforts succeed or fail, and have a common barometer for making those assessments.

Favorite CMO-type media outlets you follow?

I actually don’t follow CMO-specific sites as much as I do Analysts (Altimeter Group, Forrester, Gartner, etc.), industry specific news (GigaOm, News.com) and general business sites and email groups (All Things D/WSJ, McKinsey, Wharton, Harvard Business Review, Marketwatch.com, etc.).  I also try to follow interesting, insightful people on Twitter, where I get access to articles and research that they find compelling.

What do you see as your chief role? What’s your leadership style?

I see my role as setting direction and strategy and providing the tools and environment necessary for my team to succeed.  I tend to be very collaborative, seeking input from both my team and peers within the company to help guide my thinking.  I also am not a micro-manager.  I want to hire the best and the brightest people I can find – even if they don’t have direct role-specific experience – and give them the freedom to deliver outstanding results.  We set quarterly objectives that are tied to our overarching corporate goals, and identify how we will measure whether those objectives are met.  Then I’m available to review progress, suggest approaches, edit written content, and roll up my sleeves to help when needed.  But I want my team to feel empowered to do what it takes to be successful – not be afraid to take risks or make mistakes, and know that they are developing skills and experience that will help them progress in their own careers.

How has marketing changed with the economy’s twists and turns?

I don’t know that it really has.  Of course I’m held to my budget and am always looking for ways to drive costs down while improving results, but that’s always been the case.  And while technology has changed the way we can interact with our prospects and consumers, the fundamentals still hold.  You need to have a product or solution that solves a specific pain point, communicate that message simply and elegantly and be the type of organization with which customers want to do business.

How much do you weigh social media in marketing goals?

Social media provides a great way to interact with customers, communicate your company’s personality, culture and values and developer higher brand advocacy and loyalty (when done right).  All of those things are important to me; thus social media is an important part of our overall strategy.

If you had to make a pie chart of your marketing goals, how would you divide?

Ideally, it would be split into three equal wedges – Drive Demand, Enable Sales and Launch Products.

What is next for Janrain for the remainder of 2012?

The biggest challenge we have moving forward is managing our growth.  We just about tripled in size in 2011, and are on a path for similar results in 2012.  That has meant additional headcount, the implementation of appropriately scaled processes and a never ending list of deliverables to support this growth.  It’s a really challenging environment, but one that is super fun – I can’t wait to see where we take it!

 

 

 

Persuasive Picks for week of 7/16/12

Most forms of marketing and advertising focus on attracting and engaging customers through a sales cycle to create awareness and interest, guiding the customer to consider and purchase. Lee Odden writes on ClickZ that while a lot of social media-savvy companies are leveraging social channels to engage with communities and for customer service, expectations are high to influence a social return on investment (ROI). Learn more in Optimizing Social Media Across the Customer Lifecycle

David Murdico at iMediaConnection thinks that a lot of efforts and resources are being wasted by too many businesses, brands and organizations that lack a clear understanding of social media marketing. He cites 5 Social Media Marketing Myths You Should Understand to provide a powerful way of building awareness, communicating with consumers and ultimately selling more stuff!

If your brand has a social media presence, consumers need to hear from you. 60% of Consumers Expect Brands to Respond on Social Media regarding service at least most of the time, according to a new report. Daniel Mickens reviews the findings of a recent online survey that looks at social media’s impact on people’s brand perceptions and purchasing decisions – via Mashable.

Do you tweet at the supermarket? “Like” your favorite brands? Scan QR codes? If so, you’re part of a growing group of social media savvy consumers who use technology to inform their purchasing habits. Lauren Dugan posts How Do Consumers Use Social Media To Shop? [INFOGRAPHIC] on AllTwitter – visualizing the results of a recent study that looks at consumers’ social media behaviors when they shop.

Introductions, Referrals, Recommendations and References – Not Created Equally Online

In these days of social media madness and online relationships, it can take even more work to be sure that who you’re talking to is genuine, qualified and credible. I’ve noticed that people ask for things online in a more bold way than they used to, when face-to-face relationships ruled. Just this week I’ve been asked to write references for people I don’t know, link to and “check out and promote” several products – ranging from consumer goods and business apps, to social media training services – all of which I’ve never tried (PS you know this is what companies pay me to do, right?), and to make introductions for someone to another person who I’m not even connected with or know. What is it about digital relationships that make people so bold? How much clout do you give referrals or recommendations on networking communities and online reputation graders such as Klout, BranchOut, RateStars, Namyz and countless others? How do you handle it when a near (or total) stranger asks for a referral or other validation? Sometimes you might not even think too much about it because social networks make it so easy to just provide a recommendation without really thinking it through.

Managing your personal brand is important, yes. Ensuring your online activity is of positive quality – absolutely essential in business. Showcasing a robust online “rolodex” and “Klout score” is also key for most business professionals – especially in social marketing. But asking for and displaying recommendations or “references” from folks that really don’t know you or your work is a little misleading – and in my opinion, getting to become a disturbing “norm.” Asking for an introduction is one thing, but introductions, referrals, recommendations and references are not created equally. Do you know the difference?

  • Introduction – offering to introduce someone to a professional who works in a certain industry or could provide services that a company is seeking. Perhaps you just know of them and are connecting them with someone seeking vendors.
  • Referral – similar to an introduction, a referral could include someone you haven’t worked with, as long as you make that clear, such as, “I see you are seeking a socially savvy PR firm. I have heard that PerkettPR is great, although I’ve never personally worked with them.” These are also often made as a result of being connected online in communities such as Namyz or BranchOut.
  • Recommendation – usually involves knowing the work of a particular person, company or product, such as “I recommend PerkettPR because I’ve seen their digital work and am always impressed,” or “I tried this product and it worked for me.” Recommendations are big on Linkedin – but it’s important to note that many times people ask others to provide them without actually having worked together. It’s kind of like “link love” – I’ll give you one if you give me one. Make sure it’s a legit recommendation.
  • Reference – this is key. A reference is usually what someone asks for when they’ve been through all of the above… Such as, “Okay, I was introduced or referred to you, I received or read a few recommendations from folks in the industry who know of you and have seen your work, now I’d like to talk to someone who has actually worked with you and can talk to the results that you delivered, your work style, etc.”

And why should you care? I can think of a few reasons – both personal and professional:

  • Are you hiring employees?
  • Qualifying a vendor?
  • Hiring a services firm (like PR)?
  • Comparing products?

These are important business developments and should be vetted appropriately. Make sure you know the difference between someone providing a recommended vendor or individual based on word of mouth, and an actual reference based on experience. Online relationships have blurred the lines and sometimes people are providing recommendations to others just for popularity points, unfortunately. Be sure that you speak to actual references when hiring an employee, vendor or services firm, especially. The online world can still be misleading.

I also suggest doing some of your own digging to find people or companies who have worked with the person or vendor before – that aren’t on their reference list. For example, if you’re seeking a new PR firm, Google who a specific firm has worked with and reach out to someone there to ask about their experience. Sometimes the unlisted references are the best references.

Five tips for finding your writing mojo

We’ve all been there before: Under an impossibly-tight deadline, in front of a blank page, hypnotized by the unrelenting blinking cursor staring back at you. You’re desperate for inspiration to hit and the words to start flowing, yet the harder you try to force it, the more frustrated you become, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle otherwise known as “writer’s block.”

It’s no secret that some of the best writing comes from having the ability to let your mind wander to more creative places…but when you don’t have the luxury of time during a busy work day, what’s a pressed PR person to do?

First, know there are no shortcuts or surefire routes to producing good copy; it will take a bit of time, effort and good old-fashioned concentration (something that can be tougher and tougher to come by in today’s age of 140-character attention spans!). But on the flip side, also know that it is possible to regain your writing groove, regardless of any momentary lapse in ability.

Here are five of my favorite tips for unblocking the writer within:

Move. I’m not talking about the pack-up-your-house kind, but the need for a change in location if you feel “stuck” in one spot. Whether it’s across the room, out of the office or through town to your favorite coffee shop, a fresh perspective and some new scenery can work wonders.

Unplug. I know, I know; this might as well be a four-letter word in PR. But try turning off your phone, waiting to respond to email and closing down other distractions on your desktop – just for a bit. I promise you’ll be amazed by how much you can accomplish in a short amount of time without constantly trying to multitask.

Condition. Much like Pavlov’s dog, we can often train ourselves by pairing one stimulus with another. Have a spot in which you’ve been super productive before? Save it for when you need to get important work done, and eventually you’ll associate being there with tackling even the most complex projects with abandon.

Listen. Some people need silence to get work done, while others need to drown out the thoughts bouncing around in their heads. Whether it’s to the silence of an empty room, the ebb and flow of instrumental music or the energy of top 40 tunes, go with whichever noise strategy works for you. I happen to prefer classic rock and 90’s hits at a low volume for background noise, for example – so keep turning that dial until you hit on something that strikes a chord.

Experiment. Everyone’s writing process is different. If something isn’t working for you, don’t force a round peg into a square hole; instead, try another approach. And if that doesn’t work, try something else until you eventually stumble upon something that does work for you. But whatever you do, don’t stop investigating new avenues to unleash your inner creativity.

Have any other tips to share? We’d love to hear them in the comments below.