Are You a Thought Leader or a Thought Follower?

photo by Cheryl Andonian

photo by Cheryl Andonian

For anyone who spends any amount of time working online, it doesn’t take long to realize that there is a social media elite, the who’s who of bloggers and social media mavens that many in the blogosphere turn to for direction, instruction and advice.  I have spent countless hours reading what some of the go-to people have to say, and much of it has been extremely useful. I have learned a lot and have had the opportunity to put in my two cents through comments on their blogs, and well as writing my own commentary on my blog.  The so-called “thought leaders” of social media have quite a flock that follows their every word.

I do find that the term “thought leader” a little disturbing, with somewhat Orwellian undertones.  To me, it implies that there is an inner circle that needs to lead all others in how they should or shouldn’t think. Experience can produce knowledge, but sometimes it can also produce a closed mindedness and a sense of ownership and entitlement. I would suggest that what others outside of the elite circle can bring to the table is innovation.  Sometimes those that don’t have as much experience or that are coming in from the outside have the ability to view things with open eyes. They don’t have those preconceived notions about what should or shouldn’t be done. Those that have set the rules and would like to let all others know what those rules are and how they should be followed should listen a little more carefully to what outsiders or lesser-experienced people have to say.  The so-called thought leaders may feel like social media methodology is their baby, but the baby eventually grows up and starts dating.

This applies to any field, not just social media.  I got into a discussion with my son’s teacher last year, and I was trying to make a point to get him to look at something in a different light than what he was used to.  His response to me was “I’ve been doing this for thirty years.”  And that was that, discussion over. That statement was enough of an explanation for him to me as to why he didn’t have to listen to my perspective. Well, thirty years ago, teaching was different, school was different and kids were different. We have to be able to keep our minds open to listen to those who may be from outside, but may be able to offer a fresh outlook or a new way of doing things that could be just as valid (or more) as a well worn methodology.   An outsider’s view can sometimes shed new light onto something that otherwise, if you are too close, you cannot even see.

Social media is a relatively new concept.  It is ever-changing and evolving rapidly.  The rules, technology and methods change and mutate.  Read what others have to say, whether they are the “thought leaders” or not, insiders or not. Take what you can use or relate to and discard the rest (or even better, throw in your own comments), but don’t discount or accept anyone’s opinion based on his or her popularity, name recognition, or subscriber or follower count.  Don’t always take the safest route; let your own brain be your thought leader.

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Tools Are Cheap, Creative Talent Is Precious

tools4saleThroughout my colorful career, I have come across countless “specialists” and have hired my share for various outsourced projects, sometimes only to find that they weren’t really the talent that they professed to be. Everyone has a special talent or two, but some people believe that if they learn to use a tool, that that will give them the talent they yearn for, and will make them a specialist.

Creative talent is something innate, something that’s in your genes. It can be refined with training, education, access to tools and practice, but it’s not something that can be acquired. It’s important to know your limitations, to know what your talents are and what they aren’t. Find what your innate strengths are, focus on those, and refine them. Partner with other talented people who have natural abilities in areas where you are lacking in order to fill the gaps that are missing in your own skill set. Don’t be afraid to partner with other people, just know who they are and know what their work is to make sure they actually have the level of skills that you need.

People who work outside of a creative field (the ones who primarily use that other side of the brain) often don’t understand the talent and the process that go into creative endeavors. Knowing how to type doesn’t make you a writer, knowing html does not make you a web designer, knowing how to take a picture doesn’t make you a photographer, knowing how to hit a nail with a hammer doesn’t make you a carpenter. Tools are easy to come by. True creative talent is rare.

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To Follow Or Not To Follow, That Is The Question

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There’s always talk around the blogosphere about the benefits of commenting on other’s blog posts and of having a huge number of followers/friends/connections on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social networking sites. The first impulse is to agree completely and work your hardest to connect with as many people as humanly possible, and comment on as many blogs as possible, but I suggest that we should take a second look at that strategy.

It is irrelevant how many followers you have on Twitter, if your followers have no interest in what you have to say, are completely unrelated to your industry or interests, and are there only as a numbers building game. Call me crazy, but every time I get a new follower on Twitter, I actually click on the link to see who they are. If I can’t readily figure out within a few seconds why they would be following me, either by reading a few of their tweets, reading their profile or clicking on their web link, then I block them. I would rather have fewer, more meaningful followers than thousands of meaningless followers. I don’t need or want body builders, weight loss specialists, get rich quick scammers, get followers quick scammers, porn sites, real estate moguls or motivational speakers following me. When those types follow me, it feels more like stalking rather than following.

I’ve also been asked on numerous occasions to connect with someone on LinkedIn that I have never had any interaction with or knowledge of previously. For me, my LinkedIn connections are for people I have worked with, met, interacted with in some way or have knowledge of their expertise, work or reputation. I will not connect with someone on LinkedIn that I have absolutely no knowledge of. Association can affect my reputation, so I always make sure that I know in some capacity, with whom I am associating.

As far as leveraging blog comments to build traffic on your own site, I tend to comment on other people’s blogs because I’m compelled to respond to something I read and something moves me, rather than the notion that it’s going to drive heavy traffic to my site. My philosophy is to subscribe to those blogs that I have found that speak to my profession, or that I find funny or interesting, or that speak to my way of thinking or against my way of thinking, for that matter. Commenting on other’s blogs should be motivated by having something to add, in agreement or not, not just based on an idea that it will drive traffic to your site.

Building MEANINGFUL traffic to your site is like building a STRONG brand: IT TAKES TIME! Building relevant relationships is what will build your traffic, your reputation, your business, or your blog. Empty comments, empty traffic, empty followers will get you nowhere fast.

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If You Build Your Brand, They Will Come.

memorial_10_bg_053004 I am a complete devotee to organic 100% natural SEO/SEM. No artificial words, just pure clean brand building. Your brand name and message is what you should concentrate on building before you worry too heavily about what keywords will drive traffic to your site. If you happen upon the right keywords, yes, it will undoubtedly send traffic to your site, but what kind of traffic? Will they actually care about your brand, product or service? Will they buy? If you focus on getting your brand name out there rather than key words that might relate to your brand, then people who really care about what you do or sell will come looking for YOU specifically, generating more meaningful hits to your website and building a reputation for your name. It’s called brand building.

Case in point here…I am the co-founder of a startup children’s shoe brand called Polliwalks that was founded in ’07. I was responsible for the Marketing and PR for the brand, and was able to build a following that generated hundreds of thousands of results from a Google or Yahoo search for the brand name. How was that done? Primarily by the process of building relationships with select blogging communities, building relationships and trust with consumers and building the brand name recognition within the brand’s consumer group.

Looking at the site analytics, only a handful of people searched for the company site by using keyword search terms. Most visitors found the site by searching for the brand name and/or the web address. Taking a closer look at the analytics, the searches that used keywords, other than the brand name, consistently had a very high bounce rate. They left because they didn’t find what they were looking for. The people that searched by the brand name consistently showed a very low bounce rate. They spent a significant amount of time looking around the site because THEY FOUND WHAT THEY WERE LOOKING FOR! They searched for the brand and they found the brand. I’m not saying that SEO should be ignored, but your brand name should be the main focus of your brand building strategy.

My point here is that it is more important to get your brand name out there, get people talking about your brand in a natural way, and in turn it will get other people specifically and actively looking for you, rather than people looking for something else, finding you instead, then leaving. This kind of essential brand building does take more time to create momentum, but it is by far more meaningful and enduring and will generate true brand awareness, brand loyalty and sales, rather than meaningless traffic to your site. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

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Why Is The FTC Singling Out Bloggers?

All this hubbub about the FTC cracking down on bloggers to disclose sponsorships is a bit troublesome and confusing to me. I think it’s ironic that everyone is up in arms that bloggers may be receiving a free box of diapers in exchange for a review when magazine editors, television producers and everyone else representing “traditional” media constantly receive free products from brands in the hopes that they will be featured in an editorial piece. Many companies also pay for certain placements or mentions. This is not something new; it’s common practice that has been going on in mainstream media since the beginning of time.

The Oprah team gets millions of dollars worth of products sent to them and I don’t think Oprah has ever disclosed that she got anything for free. Brands have their products placed in TV shows and in films. Should there be a pop up that alerts viewers that the can of Coke that Ben Affleck is drinking represents a paid sponsor? Jon and Kate Gosselin got their lives supplemented by free gifts, everything from a hair transplant to a tummy tuck to trips to Disney and Hawaii to expensive play houses for their 8 kids. Product companies pay to have their products “gifted” to celebrities in the hope that their product will show up on one of Angelina Jolie’s babies on the cover of People Magazine. This happens all the time, so much so that the word gift is now used as a verb (to gift: to give Tory Spelling’s baby free stuff). Should celebrities disclose that the clothes on their children’s backs were given to them for free? Nike pays to have athletes wear their products exclusively. Oftentimes, PR and marketing representatives send “free” samples not as swag or payola, but simply to introduce a product and to let media see the product first hand and hope that they like it and will write about it. Now people fear that even a casual mention of a product or brand in an online conversation (whether sponsored or not) will result in an investigation by the FTC. Will the FTC investigate mentions of products in magazines to see if those product companies are regular advertisers in that publication? Is that acceptable? This all seems an impossible mission to enforce, seemingly skewed against bloggers.

I would venture a guess that the only media outlet that does not receive free product is Consumer Reports. Magazines, television, film, celebrities, newspapers, bloggers, tweeters, social media specialists, and anyone working in any media representing any company in any capacity should all be held accountable to the same standard. If bloggers are required to disclose sponsorship (which most do on their own anyway), then all media should as well. I’m just not understanding why bloggers are being singled out, unless of course, bloggers are chipping away at ad revenues and the mainstream media feels a bit threatened perhaps? Hmm, I’ll have to think about that….

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Brand Building: Innovate or Stay the Same?

450_heinz_largeIndependent thinkers and creatives always seem to be going against the current. Great new ideas can be hard to come by, but having the courage to implement those ideas or knowing when not to implement them is even harder. Creativity is the lifeblood of innovation and innovation is the lifeblood to longevity of a business.  I don’t mean to suggest that the only successful companies are on the cutting edge of innovation; sometimes innovation is accomplished in very subtle ways.

Heinz ketchup, for instance, has been the same since 1869, and just recently dared to change their label with the bold move of taking the pickle off and putting a tomato in its place.  They did take a questionable turn at a fork in the road when, back in 2000, they added green, purple and blue ketchup to their lineup. Although it was reported that it initially gave a boost to sales, as it turned out, consumers apparently decided that ketchup should be red. Heinz figured out that they had something good as it was: tasty, reliable, recognizable, and yes, red.  Aside from dropping the pickle and adding squeeze bottles, the branding and the product has virtually remained the same, undeniably Heinz Ketchup. In a strange and ironic way, Heinz is innovative in their lack of innovation.  They have decided to innovate by not changing.

Innovation can’t happen without a few brave souls who have natural intuition, vision, creativity and courage to do things that haven’t been proven first, nor can it happen without those traditionalists on the other end of the spectrum who are strong enough in their convictions to stand up to those who are screaming “change” when they know that it’s not a good thing for their brand.

Obviously, some industries require constant innovation to remain competitive and some don’t, but whether you are a machete wielding creative maverick, always cutting new paths through uncharted territory, or a tried and true purist with a deep knowledge and belief in maintaining a strong legacy through consistency, or someone who falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, just make sure that you always remain true to your your brand. Ego and inflexibility can be equally dangerous to progress. Innovate by creation or by staying the same, because both schools have their place. It’s just all in the knowing.

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What Brands Really Want From Product Reviewers

imagesAs a marketing professional who readily utilizes blog marketing to moms, I tend feel a bit disappointed when I get a message in my inbox that says, “your product review is up on my site”, only to find that the content of the review was taken verbatim from my news release, website or marketing materials. Don’t get me wrong, there is a little twinge of delight to see what I have written being repeated over and over throughout the blogosphere, but I know I’m not alone in saying that that is not really what brands are looking for when they engage bloggers to review their products.

The whole point of brands working with bloggers is to hear the reviewer’s personal take on the product, not just to have the brand’s carefully crafted marketing collateral disseminated on someone else’s blog. That defeats the purpose of social media marketing, and it creates a post that reads more like an advertisement than the personal endorsement that brands and readers are craving from bloggers.

I always provide as much product information to reviewers as I can, not with the intention of wanting bloggers to reproduce it, but with the intention of educating them on the product’s DNA, mission, features and brand philosophy. What is more meaningful than a reprint of the corporate message is a post that talks about the actual use of a product in a real person’s life: how it worked, how it looked, what the reactions of the users of the product were, how the product held up, etc. Review bloggers should tell a story; show pictures or video of the product in use rather than using glitzy studio shots provided by the sponsor. It may take more time and effort for bloggers to craft their own message, shoot their own pictures or produce a video review, but in the end that is what brands and readers want. If you give them what they want, readers will come back and brands will pitch you again and again.

What makes a great review is when it’s real and authentic. That’s what is meant by “finding your own voice.” Your voice is simply your own thoughts, ideas and opinions. Your voice doesn’t need to be found…you already have it! Don’t be afraid to write your own words, use your own pictures or video to tell what YOUR perspective on a product is. After all, that’s what makes a social media marketing campaign successful for brands…finding bloggers who can make a personal connection to a product and readers who can relate to that personal experience, and in turn may choose to buy.

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Lessons in Business from Chef Ramsay

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I have this love/hate thing for Gordon Ramsay. He’s brash, arrogant, foul mouthed and belittling, but I admit, I love watching the original BBC version of his series Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, where he travels around the UK visiting failing restaurants and within a week whips them back into shape. He comes off like a miracle worker possessed by Satan, but his formula is pretty simple and relevant to any business. Ramsay looks at each business from an outsider’s perspective.

My fascination with the show, aside from witnessing his nonchalant way of screaming the f-word in the faces of somehow unsuspecting business owners (they knew he was coming, right?), is the fact that most of these “restaurateurs” seem to have no idea what the problem with their business is or how to solve it.

Chef Ramsay has a simple formula that he follows for each restaurant disaster that he tackles. They all have one or more of the same problems: the food stinks, the chef has no idea what he/she is doing, the service is terrible, the inside or outside décor is shabby, the food has mold growing on it, the ingredients are packaged/frozen and/or not fresh, the menu is too big or confusing, the place is filthy, they charge too much or too little, they’re trying to sell food that the clientele doesn’t want, the restaurant has not changed since 1982, the owner has lost his/her passion, etc. But most importantly, the owner in one way or another cannot see or chooses not to see what the real problems are. This is not rocket science. It all seems so obvious. Heck, I think I could go into any of those restaurants and tell them what’s wrong, and I’d be nicer.

It’s frustrating to watch sometimes and I find myself yelling at the TV: “Doesn’t he know that keeping moldy peppers in the fridge is a bad idea?” So why do I watch? Maybe it makes me feel smarter because I can see what’s wrong, just like the great Chef Ramsay, because I too, am an outsider.

If every troubled restaurateur would just watch one episode, then have the ability to look at themselves from the outside, Chef Ramsay wouldn’t have to come and yell at them each week. As a business owner, it’s often hard to see or admit to problems that are right under your nose. The lesson here is simple: for business success you need to have the ability to remove yourself and turn around and look at your business, really open your eyes, and have the strength to change the things that need changing. Remove yourself and things become clear – kind of like having one of those out of body experiences. Or then again, you could have Chef Ramsay come and yell at you.

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