The Influencer’s Dilemma: The Battle For Mindshare Amid Media Turmoil

Expert Series: Louis Gray


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Successful businesses are always making choices and sacrifices, strategically looking as to how they are going to prioritize their resources, including human capital, budgets, and, of course, time. As the world around them adapts, so too do they need to make changes internally to respond, or to predict where trends are going – and if they guess right, the business could catapult ahead of less-agile competition.

Almost nowhere else in business has the radical transformation of how we consume and share information in the last few years been felt more than the world of public relations and corporate marketing. Tried and true practices in terms of who to reach out to, what timescale to respond, and where to find potential prospects no longer work – and often, the people who used to hold influence no longer do – forcing Marketing teams and PR agencies alike to rethink everything.

The debate around “old media”, consisting primarily of newspapers, news magazines and network television journalism “dying” has been rehashed a million times. In parallel, the discovery of new social settings where customers, prospects, partners and competition is participating is also well known (at least to most savvy companies). The summary is simple (old media: doing badly… new media: rising rapidly), but the solution as to what to do next, and how to best approach the change, is not clear.

For the last ten years, in parallel with my more visible blogging activity, I’ve been responsible for much of the public relations and analyst relation strategies for Silicon Valley companies in the enterprise hardware space. For companies like this, who don’t have the flashy colors of Web 2.0 brands, and don’t have a large array of consumer tech blogs fawning for their every update, accepting and embracing the world of “social” or new media can be a tremendous challenge.

The old methods are tried and true: Prepare a launch plan well in advance. Test messaging with trusted confidants. Seed a few choice reporters with the details. Brief analysts and gain placed quotes. Find a handful of referenceable customers. Then, plan for a big boom on the product’s debut date, where every publication you briefed writes about you and nobody breaks the embargo. Success!

Or… at least it used to be that way.

In the last few years, many of these media publications have been decimated, seeing a high number of journalists turning in their reporter card in exchange for an analyst badge. Not only must one now wonder where all these new analysts could possibly be quoted, but companies are still left trying to find enough positive high-profile media hits to spread word on their product, to reach potential buyers’ eyes.

And the story gets worse for practitioners of this old method. As many studies have displayed, trust for company spokespeople is dramatically declining – and the readership for a great number of the remaining media outlets is declining, as peers choose to talk to peers, many are publishing their own blogs, in effect becoming media outlets on their own, and a good portion have become cynical of intermediary outlets, like traditional press, both offline and online.

The challenge then becomes: How does a company adapt, in real time, to this new world? I’ve stressed there are really three phases to accurately deploying a social strategy:

1) Be aware of the tools and services, and know their functionality. (Know the difference between Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, FriendFeed and others, and why people use one tool instead of another)

2) Listen to what is being said about you, your industry and competition in each of these networks to get an understanding of the environment.

3) Engage in a direct, trusted manner, that sets up the company as a peer instead of a megaphone.

Engaging too soon, without having a strategy, and accurately understanding the outlets, is bound to fail. Engaging without listening to what is being said about you is bound to fail. But, and this is tricky, so too is the strategy to abandon the “old way” of doing things completely in favor of the “new way”.

I often run into situations where, especially in these cost-sensitive times, it can be tempting to cut PR budgets in order to focus on the less-expensive social media. One without the other is unbalanced. I see social media not as a parallel activity that operates independently of your corporate plans for spreading the word and your brand, but instead, as a core piece of the infrastructure, which augments everything that you do.

Therein lies a major part of this new “influencers’ dilemma”, as companies need to choose how much focus they give the new media instead of the old. How much money? How much time? How long do they wait until the achieve results? What does ROI look like and how effective is it?

Customers are demanding a seat at the table.  They are tired of being talked at, and they want to be talked with. They want to be trusted, and to know that their input has merit. Companies are looking to find a safe middle ground where they can extoll their products virtues, but do so in a familiar, personal way. And in between sits the PR and Marketing team – roiled with these conflicting goals of being aggressive yet being sensitive – pushing yet listening, and fighting to find balance. This new dilemma is not a question of if it exists, but how do you respond, and how do you overcome?
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Louis Gray, author of louisgray.com, an early adopter Silicon Valley blog focused on real time, technology innovation and social media, is the Senior Director of Corporate Marketing at Paladin Advisors Group in Woodside, California.
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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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