FIR B2B podcast #132: Worst PR Nightmares of 2019

This week we take a moment to reflect on the past year’s major PR blunders. Thanks to the folks at Crain’s Chicago Business, we have five doozies to relive with you. They run the gamut from Hallmark’s lesbian bridal spot to Sallie Mae’s Hawaiian junket to the various missteps of Boeing’s now ex-CEO.  All have a few things in common:

  • The companies were culturally tone-deaf, whether to gender, racial, or other sensitive topics. Being woke isn’t just a fixed state of mind but a commitment to keep up with the cultural norms and mores and memes in this diverse world.
  • They failed to talk. The first hours after a crisis are critical and require a response — even if it is “We are working on a response and will get back to you.” Crickets will just inflame passions and create the impression that the business fails to understand its mistakes. “An organization is more likely to survive a crisis with its reputation intact if it immediately speaks for itself rather than allowing others to speculate about its motives and behavior,” Crain’s wrote.
  • They reinforced stereotypes. The Peloton ad would have worked if it had showed the woman gifting her husband, not the other way around. Why not run these ideas by impartial third parties who can identify the land mines? Hire a couple of journalists to poke holes at your message.
  • The companies waffled in response. Hallmark first pulled then reinstated its bridal TV spot. The ad was bold and progressive. Why not stand your ground instead of yielding to criticism that you know is coming?
  • Don’t be Facebook. We have beaten up repeatedly on the social network over the past year (#117 on alternatives  and #102 on how to fix some of their most egregious flaws).  Crain’s gives Facebook a dishonorable mention for stating that it won’t vet political campaigns ads.

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Lessons tech startups can learn from the history of 3Com

Many tech startups of today just assume that the Internet is ubiquitous, that bandwidth is plentiful, and that everyone can connect anywhere and at anytime. Well, that wasn’t always the case, and back in the day when I was a young IT professional, we didn’t have the Internet. We didn’t have Wifi. And we just barely had PCs on our desks.

Then a company by the name of 3Com came into the picture, and our world changed. Never heard of them? They were the early innovator of Ethernet computer networking, and back then you had to use wires to connect computers together and special circuit boards that had to be installed inside a computer, not to mention special software to run it all. Those early networks required skills to get all of this setup properly. 3Com figured this all out, and the company existed for 40 years before eventually its assets were sold to HP for $2.7B a few years ago. They had a good run for the first ten years of their corporate life until they started making major mistakes in the middle 1990s.

If you are involved in a tech startup, there are lots of business books that you can read. But Jeff Chase’s 3Com chronicle will be one that can help guide you. He takes us through their founding, their success, their collapse, and their eventual end with a lot of insider information, which isn’t surprising given that he worked in their corporate audit department for nearly a decade. What is also important is how he describes the many lessons to be learned from this history of the company, how it took advantage of the early networking technologies and then squandered this lead.

First, let’s look at their major successes:

  1. A key recipe for any business’ success is whether or not teams have an emotional commitment towards their managers. This is something that 3Com had in spades and was noted for its staff loyalty. One reason for this is the company had a very open and transparent culture, sharing weekly results at all-hands meetings every Friday, even numbers that were generally only known by top executives. Contrast this with many tech companies that are very secretive today.
  2. Understand your go-to-market and channel strategy. One 3COM CEO, Bill Krause, put it this way: “All our VCs thoughts that if you were going to sell networks it had to be done through their IT departments. We were determined to sell our products through computer stores because they were easy to install and use. That turned out to be successful.” That was an understatement. Back in those early days, this was ground-breaking.
  3. 3Com didn’t only develop and commercialize Ethernet products, but it also developed new distribution methods and innovative manufacturing processes to make these products. It kept up – for a time – in advances in network speeds and contributed to the open standards that made Ethernet the only networking technology to survive to the present day.
  4. They understood innovation, at least for their first decade. They had the patience to trust their instincts and initially took the right bets to stay ahead on Ethernet innovation, with the caveats mentioned below. They also understood that they had had sticky products that were put together well, and drove loyalty in their existing customer base.
  5. 3Com was one of the first companies to go global in a meaningful way, hiring offshore R&D talent and focusing on partnerships with Chinese companies long before either of these became fashionable. They coined a term for the later, “China Out,” which enabled them to enter the Chinese market, license their technology to a leading Chinese networking company, and re-energize the company in its later years. How this happened is worth reading these chapters alone.

But here are their major blunders:

  1. 3Com blew a major decision to upgrade to Fast Ethernet and gave away that market to Cisco. The two companies had big differences in their focus on sales, marketing and engineering. 3Com failed in the Fast Ethernet market, was late to recognize its role and never recaptured its lead as an innovator that it had with its early Ethernet products. Part of the problem here was that they focused on their most profitable products, ignoring potential game-changing disruptive new technologies. But part is that they rested on their laurels with their Ethernet business and stopped innovating, losing ground to others.
  2. They didn’t carefully plan their acquisitions. Early on, 3Com had a few successful acquisitions based on complementary strategies and product lines. But then in the middle 1990s they blew it with the US Robotics/Palm purchase. 3Com bought the modem company for $7.3B, eventually spinning off the Palm subsidiary for an IPO that generated $1B in cash profits. But 3Com was never the same after this acquisition, and it led towards their eventual downfall.
  3. It lost its vision, misunderstanding its customers and what their priorities were. They became tactical, not strategic. They forgot about their customers which were the major banks and largest enterprises in the world, and what they purchased and how they bought their equipment. In essence, they basically exited the large enterprise market in 2000 and could only recapture this in later years with great difficulty.
  4. They had a strong CTO (Paul Sherer) but when he left the position wasn’t filled. In the book there is this delightful story about how Sherer had to come in over one weekend after he resigned and help fix a bug that no one else could quash after weeks of work.

Spend some time learning from the successes and failures of 3Com if you are working for a tech startup. You will find them instructive, and Chase’s book a worthwhile read.

How the Red Cross provides social media leadership

I have been volunteering for the past several months for the American Red Cross and I came across a series of documents, policies, and training about how they use social media that I thought I would share with you. I actually have two very different volunteer jobs with them. First, I work for our local chapter to drive blood to various hospital blood banks. And I work for the national office in DC to help produce a monthly webinar that is attended by hundreds of volunteers and employees involved in their disaster relief efforts. Note that these thoughts are my own, and not necessarily that of the Red Cross.

One thing that I am continually impressed with the Red Cross is how well it partitions and structures the workflows of its volunteers. Even if you volunteer for a relatively low-level position, such as a front desk receptionist, there are manuals that guide what you do and when you do it. This isn’t surprising, given how many of us volunteers there are and how many volunteers are in key leadership roles directing its critical operations. Think about that for a moment: many non-profits give their volunteers the scut work (file these papers that have been lying around here for months). The Red Cross does the opposite, and it is often hard to distinguish between volunteers and staffers when you first meet someone.

A good case in point is my wife, who volunteered in their Santa Monica office years ago after the Katrina floods. Within weeks she was attending staff meetings and eventually she was hired as the chapter’s development director.

But let’s talk about social media, and my first point is the Red Cross’ social media guidelines, which take up all of a single page but have lots of good advice. I thought I would share some of them with you as an example of what you should create for your own business. During my last webinar, Megan Weiler, the senior director of Social Media at their DC HQ gave a presentation on these guidelines and pointed out their six core principles of being a good social citizen:

  • Be human, meaning “be your friendly self and use good manners” – too often we tend to post from frustration or to try to right a wrong.
  • Be engaging, find others of similar interests and encourage thoughtful discussions.
  • Be accurate, make sure news items are verified and give credit for the content you got from someone or somewhere else.
  • Be honest, meaning if you mess up, fess up and do so quickly.
  • Be considerate, don’t start flame wars. If you have to disagree with someone, do it politely. Also, stay focused on the topic at hand.
  • Be safe. Protect your privacy and “be mindful of what you share online.”

These are all great things to keep in mind when you create your own social media posts for your company. What I like about this list is that it gives you the responsibility and boundaries to be successful at delivering messages using social media. Having written and spoken about these topics for more than a decade, I found it a very refreshing take. Too often corporations are heavy-handed about directing their employees’ use of social media. That heavy hand results in social media misfires or sock puppetry that doesn’t serve anyone well. (Take as a case in point of the Twitter account of a certain former White House staffer earlier this month as an example.)

Some corporations were early advocates of social media like Dell, who subsequently put together a central social media command center at its corporate offices outside of Austin. That may work well for them (I wrote this analysis of Dell’s effort back in 2011) and indeed the Red Cross has its own digital operations nerve center to help with its disaster relief efforts. But this is just one aspect of what the Red Cross does and managing their gigantic global volunteer staff at the Red Cross has some other circumstances and wider implications. They actually understand that social media engagement is a critical component of their operational DNA and sharing a volunteer’s personal story is part of their mission.

You might wonder why I am driving blood around town. My reason was simple: it was an extension of the many years where I donated blood and I liked being more involved and getting to understand their infrastructure to bring blood units to those who need them. It isn’t intellectually challenging – other than keeping track of where in each hospital the blood labs are located – but it deepens my involvement. (Did you notice how I just shared my personal story here?) BTW, for those of you that donate blood, thanks for helping out!

Finally, the Red Cross has a half-hour online training course on social media basics that are only available to volunteers. The class walks you through what social listening is all about and how to get you more engaged in participating in social media as a Red Crosser. The class also makes a distinction between a volunteer implying they are running an official Red Cross social media account, versus their saying that they only represent themselves. That is an important distinction.

The class goes into further details:

  • If you post anything about the Red Cross, make sure you disclose your role and use your real name. Disclose any vested self-interest and write about your own expertise.
  • Respect your dignity, privacy and confidences. Be sensitive to the community you are serving, be cautious about sharing information before it is vetted.
  • “Remember if you are online, you are on the record.” This is probably the most important aspect of social media that many of us tend to forget.
  • Understand that your personal social media accounts are your identity. You should certainly include your corporate affiliation in your online bios but shouldn’t construct your Twitter handle around them. For example, create a handle such as @dstrom, rather than @redCrossStrom. Maintain the balance of what is personal and what is professional. Some companies want you to operate their social media accounts – while that could work in certain circumstances, the Red Cross wants you to be you.

FIR B2B podcast #131: How to Run Webcasts and Video Calls

Both Paul Gillin and I have run and participated in various webinars and online meetings over the years. For this podcast episode, we share some of their best practices. There are several things you can do to have great meetings. First, is preparing your speakers and in planning for the presentation. Do you have the right kind of slide deck? With our in-person speaking gigs, we try to minimize the text on our slides and provide for more of an experience and set the mood. For a webinar where you don’t necessary see your audience, your slides are more of your speaking notes, so your audience can take away your thoughts and remember your major points.

I produce a monthly webinar for the Red Cross that has a dozen speakers and an audience of several hundred. To pull this off with minimal technical issues, my team has put together a lengthy document that recommends how speakers connect (watch for poor Wi-Fi and don’t use speakerphones) and describes the various roles that different people play during the conference call (master of ceremonies, moderator, time keeper, slide wrangler, presenter recruiter, chat and notes helpers). Paul and I both suggest using a common slide deck for all speakers, which means getting the slides in order prior to the meeting. Also, with more than a couple of presenters you should test your speakers’ audio connections too; both of us have had more problems with wonky audio than video. And settle on a protocol for whether or not to show your face when the meeting starts (and check to see if you are appropriately dressed).

Both of us feel you should always start your meetings promptly: you don’t want to be wasting time waiting for stragglers. We both don’t particularly like Skype for Business, although “regular” Skype is fine (most times) and we have also used GoToMeeting and Zoom, too.

Here is an example of a recent speech I gave to an audience of local government IT managers. I also has lots of other tips on how to do more than meetings and improve team collaboration here.

If you would like to listen to our 16 minute podcast, click below:

Good luck with running your own online meetings, and please share your own tips and best practices as comments. And enjoy the video below.

Bob Metcalfe on credit, gratitude, and loyalty

For Bob Metcalfe, many things come in triples. His most successful company was called 3Com is one example. I met up with him recently and he told me, “You will be happier if you give and enjoy but not expect credit, gratitude, or loyalty.” Before I unpack that, let me tell you the story of how Bob and I first met.

This was in 1990 and I was about to launch Network Computing magazine for CMP. I was its first editor-in-chief and it was a breakout job for me in many respects: I was fortunate to be able to set the overall editorial direction of the publication and hire a solid editorial and production team, it was the first magazine that CMP ever published using desktop technology and it was the first time that I had built a test lab into the DNA of a B2B IT publication. Can you tell that I am still very proud of the pub? Yeah, there is that. Bob was one of our early columnists, and he was at the point in his career where he wanted to tell some stories about the development of his invention of Ethernet. We had a lot of fun getting these stories into print and Bob told me that for many years those first columns of his had a place of honor in his home. Bob went on to write many more columns for other IT pubs and eventually became publisher of Infoworld.

In addition to being a very clever inventor, Bob is also a master storyteller. One of his many sayings has since been enshrined as “Metcalfe’s law” which says a network’s effect is proportional to the square of its users or nodes. He is also infamous for wrongly predicting the end of the Internet in an Infoworld column he wrote in December 1995.  He called it a “gigalapse”  which would happen the next year. When of course it didn’t come to pass, he ate the printed copy of his column.

Oh well, you can’t always be right, but he is usually very pithy and droll.

Let’s talk about his latest statement, about credit, gratitude and loyalty. Notice how he differentiates the give and take of the three elements: with Bob, it is always critical to understand the relationship of inputs and outputs.

Credit means being acknowledged for your achievements. “The trick is to get credit without claiming it,” says Metcalfe. Credit comes in many forms: validation from your peers, recognition by your profession, or even a short “attaboy” from your boss for a job well done. I can think of the times in my career when I got credit for something that I wrote about: a fine explanation of something technical by one of my readers, or spotting a trend that few had yet seen. But what Bob is telling us is to put the shoe on the other foot, and give credit where and when it is due — output, rather than input. It is great to be acknowledged, but greater still if we cite those that deserve credit for their achievements. Going back to Network Computing, many of the people that I hired have gone on to do great things in the IT industry, and I continue to give them props for doing such wonderful work and to their contributions to our industry.

Gratitude is getting positive feedback, of thanking someone for their efforts. Too often we forget to say thanks. I can think of many jobs that I have held over the years where my boss didn’t give out many thank yous. But it is always better to give thanks to others than expect it. Credit and gratitude are a tight bundle to be sure.

Finally, there is loyalty. The dictionary defines this in a variety of ways, but one that I liked was “faithful to a cause, ideal, custom, institution, or product.” Too often we are expected to be faithful to something that starts out well but ends up poorly. Many times I have left jobs because the product team made some bad decisions, or because people whom I respected left out of frustration. If you are the boss, you can’t really demand loyalty, especially if you don’t show any gratitude or acknowledge credit for your staff’s achievements. “Loyalty is what you expect of your customers when your products are no longer competitive,” says Metcalfe.

I would be interested in your own reactions to what Bob said, and if you have examples from your own work life that you would like to share with others.

FIR B2B podcast #130: Don’t be fake!

The news earlier this month about Mitt Romney’s fake “Pierre Delecto” Twitter account once again brought fakery to the forefront. We discuss various aspects of fake news and what brands need to know to remain on point, honest and genuine to themselves. We first point out a study undertaken by North Carolina State researchers that found that the less people trust Facebook, the more skeptical they become of the news they see there. One lesson from the study is that brands should carefully choose how they rebut fake news.

Facebook is trying to figure out the best response to fake political ads, although it’s still far from doing an adequate job. A piece in BuzzFeed found that the social network has been inconsistent in applying its own corporate standards to decisions about what ads to run. These standards have nothing about whether the ads are factual and more to do with profanity or major user interface failures such as misleading or non-clickable action buttons. More work is needed.

Finally, we discuss two MIT studies mentioned in Axios about how machine learning can’t easily flag fake news. We have mentioned before how easy it is for machines to now create news stories without much human oversight. But one weakness of ML recipes is that precise and unbiased training data need to be used. When training data contains bias, machines simply amplify it, as Amazon discovered last year. Building truly impartial training data sets requires special skills, and it’s never easy.  (The image here btw is from a wonderful movie starring Orson Wells “F is for Fake.”)

Listen to the latest episode of our podcast here.

FIR B2B podcast #129: We’re Pleased and Excited to Tell You What People Don’t Know About Social Media

My podcast with Paul Gillin examines three different articles that touch on various B2B marketing aspects in this podcast. The first one from Digiday and documents what the BBC went through to establish its fifth content vertical it calls Future. The channel deals with health, wellness and sustainability, and it took a lot more effort than you might think to create. Branded content is driving a lot of page views at the Beeb, as the Brits lovingly refer to it, and the reason is because of all the work that the media company puts into their creation, working with ad partners, their marketing teams and editors. An article on whether eating eggs is healthy brought in a million page views and had an average dwell time of five minutes, which is content gold.

The second piece is from Chris Penn, who does excellent marketing research. He came up with analytics that show several “happy words” — such as “pleased,” “excited,” “proud” and “thrilled” — litter the press release landscape, offering nothing in the way of real information. Does anyone really care if your CEO is having a good day because you just announced version 3.45 of some product? It might be time to eliminate these words entirely from your marketing lingo, have the language reflect reality more closely and perhaps get more reporters’ attention too.

Finally, we found this Pew Research survey that shows exactly how little the average adult knows about the digital marketing world. Pew gave more than 4,000 adults a 10-question quiz that asked things like what the “s” in “https” stands for, who owns Instagram and whether ads are a significant source of social media revenue. A huge chunk of respondents either answered incorrectly or didn’t know the answer.  Listen to our podcast here.

FIR B2B podcast#128: More SEO Secrets with Charley Spektor (Part 2)

This is the second of our two-part interview with Charley Spektor, principal at Saratoga B2B Group. Charley and his business partner, Paul Desmond, combine SEO and quality content to produce sustainable lead generation for B2B clients. In this second podcast, we discuss some of the practical tools that marketers can use to improve their SEO operations, common mistakes that marketers makes when trying to improve their SEO results, how to provide the best content mix to deliver solid leads and how to stay ahead of the constantly changing technology.

You can listen to part 2 of our interview here:

You can find part one of the interview here.

FIR B2B podcast #127: B2B SEO Secrets With Charley Spektor – Part 1

For the next two weeks we talk with Charley Spektor, principal at Saratoga B2B Group. Charley and his partner, veteran tech writer Paul Desmond, bring clients the one-two punch of SEO and content expertise for B2B lead generation. Charley was formerly lead managing consultant at Stone Temple Consulting for Home Depot, which has been one of the few great success stories of a brick-and-mortar retailer embracing e-commerce. In these two podcasts, we discuss what are the elements of success in a discipline that changes constantly, how B2B buyers use search differently than consumers and how even small companies can dominate search results if they pick their targets carefully. Read this this blog post about two recent Saratoga B2B customer success stories for further background on the case studies we discuss.

Listen to part 1 here.

FIR B2B podcast episode #126: unintended consequences

This week Paul Gillin and I discuss three examples of unintended consequences for B2B marketers that showed up in recent business marketing literature. Our first piece, which appeared in B2BMarketing.net, highlights recent survey by Acoustic that found a jump in email open and click-through rates in the past year – and in some cases a pretty substantial jump – thanks to new privacy regulations in the EU and elsewhere. The rules have forced marketers to hone their messages and to produce more precise email campaigns, which has resulted in better engagement with recipients. Talk about silver linings!

Next, we found a year-old survey from the British Marketing Week that found the influence of the marketing organization drops as brand value grows. This could be caused by several factors, including not understanding how customer acquisition and retention work or the fact that many marketers are still loath to employ data-driven technologies.

Finally, Inc. looks at a Harvard study about the unintended consequences of doling out awards to your staff. The researchers found that awards can have the revenge effect of actually de-motivating employees. Reasons include the unintended social cost of being singled out or employees slacking off once they realize they’re exceeding expectations. Businesses need to consider the reason people do the things they do and dig deeper to find out rewards that have more than just recognition value.

This could be an underlying reason why Facebook is thinking about hiding the “Like” counts on its posts, according to TechCrunch. Facebook says it wants to protect users from envy and dissuade them from self-censorship.

You can listen to our 13 min. podcast here.