The Experience Is The Thing

December 4th, 2015

And now a rant on customer experience triggered by Brian Solisnew book, X: The Experience When Business Meets Design (more on this later).

I am a Birchbox subscriber. Twice, when the company’s sample boxes got me hooked on a product and I went to the website to purchase a full-sized version, the product was sold out, and I had to check back numerous times. The last time this happened was on Cyber Monday 2015, when Birchbox was pushing me emails shouting “25% off on everything!” Twice that day, I took a moment away from my work and clicked through from those emails only to find the product unavailable. Frustrating. As a result, I tweeted at Birchbox, asking them whether a sale could really be called a sale if the products loyal subscribers wanted (that they’d already promoted to us) weren’t available. I got a smiley robo-tweet in return, apologizing and suggesting I buy something else. When I tweeted a second time, suggesting that this sounded a little like a bait and switch, Birchbox tweeted back the identical robo-apology… minus the suggestion that I shop for something else. Non-thinking, unfeeling, impersonal and obnoxious.

If that sounds strong, it’s because I care. Seriously. Birchbox obviously frets quite a bit over how pretty their monthly boxes are, and what color the tissue paper is inside, and all I want to do is shake them and ask, “Do you understand what you sell?”

Like all brands, Birchbox’s product is not at the point of the most obvious transaction – in their case, the monthly boxes of samples. Their “product” is the entire experience into which a consumer is drawn when he/she decides to allow a brand into his or her busy life. And that’s what it is: I have choices, I don’t need you and – if I let you in – every single touch, every single interaction better be great. In Birchbox’s case, I love the samples, but may not renew my annual subscription because the surrounding experience they provide is lousy and I can’t count on getting a product I want even if I like the sample.

I am constantly shocked at how unconscious brands seem, how blind they are to the fact that experience IS the brand. As a marketer myself, it’s seriously terrifying how clueless brands are about what’s really important.

Oh, and – once a customer starts yelling online – it often kicks off additional complaints, like the woman on Twitter who responded to my experience with “I was basically charged twice for a December birchbox. I signed up last week and now I have ten bucks out of my account today.”

Oh, and (one more time…), of course Birchbox has completely ignored my question about sale rainchecks. Ignoring a customer? That’s the worst.

As Brian Solis says, “Ignorance is diss.”

All this is what Brian’s book is about, and why I loved it. If the above blah-blah makes me sound a little crazy, Brian says I’m normal. He explains that the digital world has upped the ante in terms of what customers expect, making us all “accidental narcissists” who expect more and expect it quickly. And by the way, these expectations that started online have bled into every part of our lives. The experience is everything everywhere now. I don’t care how amazing a refrigerator is; if I can’t get a service person on the phone, I will never buy you again. I don’t care how great your clothes are if your salespeople are rude and your return policy sucks. I don’t care how amazing you are if your ad tracking follows me all over the Web until I want to scream. I don’t care how fabulous your shoes are if your website’s a nightmare. No amount of product fabulousness – or boxes that are so pretty I save them – can overcome a crappy experience.

Brian is right. From the second a brand story catches a consumer’s eye, the clock starts ticking and the expectations start growing. That brand is on stage… and needs to learn how not to f* it up. I used to love Birchbox. Happy thoughts all around. That was then. Last night, I saw a holiday TV ad for the company, and my head was full of disappointment.  That’s a self-inflicted wound that the company would need to work hard to close.

Great book.

Anyone who knows me well knows that helping people understand, grow and protect their personal brands online is something I’ve been committed to for some time. I’ve written numerous posts on the subject, including these two recent ones – Thinking it won’t happen to you? Dumb idea and Don’t let social make you stupid – along with a popular 4-part series called “Promoting and growing brands in the digital age” that I started writing way back in 2007 (Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4).

While nearly all of the advice I provided in these posts is still valuable (if I may say so myself), just as much or more has changed since then, particularly when it comes to who can now see, capture, process and act upon the information we’re all sharing every day. How hard would it be for someone with a mighty set of algorithms and a big server to answer these questions about you right now?

  Where do you live?
  Where do you shop?
  What do you look like?
  What do you drive?
  How much did your home cost?
  How much do you spend on clothes/groceries/electronics?
  Where did you go to school/where do your kids go to school?
  Where do you vacation and party? What’s your favorite drink?
  How far are your favorite stores from your home and office?
  Who are your friends?
  What are your favorite restaurants? Where do you eat out most often?

The answer is that it wouldn’t be very hard at all for a capable person or company to harvest the answers to these and many more questions about you, and to mix and match them in an infinite number of ways in order to predict what you might do, where you might go and what you might want, watch or buy next.

Is this what we’ve signed up for, or do we just not think about it? Are we paying enough attention to the idea that everything we like, share, post and repost, pin or repin, tweet or retweet, Instagram or “re-gram” is being used to create profiles of each of us, and that the value of these profiles goes far beyond what Amazon might try to see us next?

Mark Cuban is thinking about it, and he believes that the biggest mistake we are making in social media is letting the content we create live forever [If you cannot see the video interview with Mark below, watch it HERE. It’s a must-see].  His point of view is that looking back at the days when privacy worries were focused on cookies is going to appear quaint when the 0s and 1s we throw off become the basis of psychological profiles that are used in pervasive and invasive ways that we cannot control.

You’ll go to a job interview, and the company will have a psychological profile of you based on your online activity. You’ll get sued, and the opposing lawyer will share where and what you’ve posted, along with an analysis saying that your activity looks that of a person who was convicted of xyz crime, and so there must be a link.  You’ll get pulled over for speeding, and the officer will have reviewed an analysis that scored how likely you are to have committed various crimes, or be drunk, or to have seen a therapist or have a weapon in the car before he even walks up to your window.

We already know that these scenarios are not far-fetched.  In the days when I first began writing about personal branding, one of the most important lessons I taught was the importance of creating your own content in order to create and present the narrative you want.  Now that benefit must be balanced with what others can do with the intelligence you produce.

I have tweeted over 13,000 times since joining Twitter in 2008.  How many do I remember? How many feature some tiny tidbit that could be used in a way I did not intend?  How important is it that I keep everything I tweeted in February 2010?  The answers are Not many, Probably several and Not at all.  To that end, I’ve begun erasing old tweets and am beginning to scrub away a bunch of old stuff.

If you handle this intelligently, such social cleansing is not likely to negatively impact your positive search results, but it is likely to limit what is unknowingly shared with others.  At least, that’s the hope: I for one would not bet someone’s life on the idea that anything on the Web can ever be fully erased, but you gotta start somewhere.

What if yesterday rewarded those with the biggest digital footprints possible, while tomorrow goes to those with the smallest?

P.S. Sure, Cuban is selling in this interview; Cuban sells like the rest of us breathe. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

From a chair in the marketing department, it’s too easy to look only at the world that, well, you can actually see.  The problem is that – while your optics on other parts of the company may be zero – those other zones may be your greatest weakness.  And they’re operating in the webosphere 24/7.

You know, for example, that your company has plants in the Far East or does business with farms, but – unless you’re on this or that executive committee – your true knowledge of the goings on out in the field is extremely low.

Low, that is, until a video hits YouTube and becomes a sensation. That great campaign your team has been lovingly preparing for six months? Forget about it. No one would believe it, and everyone’s in crisis mode, anyway.

Not having a broad handle on your organization’s practices in the farthest reaches of the value chain might have been acceptable 10 years ago, but –  in the age of social media – companies have to be more aware of their soft spots: the activities that are vulnerable to miscommunication, misinterpretation or true mishandling.

How your company handles farmed salmon or trucker hours or car seat testing isn’t in the CMO’s purview, but you better believe that it sits on every marketer’s desk, every day, like a ticking time bomb.

Tick, tick, tick.

There are also plenty of examples where marketers have voluntarily entered the social media jungle, unprepared for the attacks that even a child could have told them might come.

It is smart marketing  – not “negativity” – to have an unblinkingly honest view of your brand and to protect its vulnerabilities. Every brand in the world has ’em. McDonald’s in the US and Waitrose in the UK (hashtags #McDStories and #waitrosereasons, respectively) are both recent examples of powerful brands putting a toddler in front of a Twitter truck and expecting her not to get run over. Maybe she won’t, but do you really want to find out?

Of course, most of the challenges that brands face in social media aren’t new. People have always groused about poor service or “hated” this brand or another. The difference is that now every consumer is one tweet away from telling the universe about it.

Take the case of Progressive Insurance. When New Yorker Matt Fisher’s sister died in a car crash, Fisher wrote a scathing blog post. In one week, Marketwatch claims the company lost 1,000 customers, with another 1,600 saying that they would never do business with the insurer. Plus the news coverage was unbelievable.

Now, was Progressive wrong in this case? I have no idea. Do any of my friends have any personal knowledge of this particular situation? Nope.  But that didn’t stop them from tweeting and retweeting while the story was hot.

NBC News said it best: “the “lessons from [the] Progressive screw up” are that “when it’s Twitter vs. lawyers, take Twitter.”

The insurer settled the Fisher family’s lawsuit within three or four days.

In essence, social media simply amplifies your strengths and weaknesses. It creates a level of transparency that forces advertisers to live by what they say.  Or else.

And by the way, could a consumer just be “out to get” your company and stage some awful stunt that gets picked up worldwide? Yes, and that’s happened. In the meantime, you endure a week of hell, claiming your legitimate innocence, while the brand gets shredded.

So – what to do? Brands need to prepare for and anticipate the downside. A food company may want to think about how its ingredients are selected. A QSR might want to do the same. A shoe or computer company will want to think about its manufacturing policies and whether there are any parties that would relish revealing a damaging factoid.

This is not paranoia and, as I said, it’s not negativism. In my opinion, it’s actually the greatest thing you can do to protect what you care about. Everything’s easy when everything’s good. If the organic material hits the fan, how will you protect your assets and the consumers who believe in you and who need to understand what happened? What message do you want to communicate, and how, when and who will do it?

Don’t wait to figure this out. Sit down in private with your agencies and your leadership and create a plan for what you’ll do when a true or not-true-but-fast-moving event occurs. Know what you’ll do in the short term, and determine whether there would be any possible adjustments to the marketing message or the business overall in the long term.

The truth is that most brands aren’t doing heinous things, but there is a wide gulf between that truth and what actually might happen to you on the Web. Every week, I see a brand looking like a deer in headlights after some goof-up on a social network. When will we get it?

Prepare for what you should assume will be the inevitable. It doesn’t mean it’ll happen, but – if it does and you’re ready – the payoff is the preservation of brand value, your company’s reputation, your employees’ commitment and much more.

The bottom line is that living in a castle and thinking your brand is just fabulous is a mistake. Everyone’s got vulnerabilities. That’s business.

A version of this post was first published HERE by M&M Global.

I was in a client meeting when an earthquake shook New York City a couple weeks ago.  We all stared at each other for a few seconds and waited for the building to fall down. When it didn’t, we went back to business.

Back to the same agenda, for sure, but not before the New Yorkers in the room had conjured 9/11.  The few, quiet comments didn’t turn into a conversation – no one wanted that – but the sickening feeling was there, in the room with us, as fresh and raw as ever.  Interestingly, the morning actually started with someone remarking that the beautiful weather reminded her of that lovely clear day almost ten years ago.  In New York, good things remind us.  Bad things remind us.  It’s just here.   All the time.

I personally was not in New York on 9/11.  I was in San Francisco, and the flight freeze meant I couldn’t come home.

I felt awful.  I wasn’t there when my city got hurt.  I wasn’t there when friends died.

When I finally did make it back, I took the 6 Train down to the Financial District alone.  I think it was September 21.  When I climbed out of the subway, I discovered a planet I did not recognize.  Crowds were everywhere.  People were crying.  Others were clutching photos of loved ones for whom they were still searching.  The sidewalk was thick with people, milling around, shouting to get each other’s attention, taking pictures, and generally contributing to the chaos.  I took five or six steps and just froze.  When I stopped, I could finally see the gray particles floating in the air, landing on my shoulders and in my hair.  It took me a few seconds to realize what they were.

It was the end of the world, and all I could do was stand there under a big scaffold, staring in the direction of a smoking hole in the ground.

I don’t know how long I stayed immobile, with the flakes wafting down on my sweater.  It must have been a minute or two because, as in some slo-mo movie scene, a cop seemed to emerge from nowhere.  He walked over to me, put his hand on my arm and said, “Are you OK, miss?  Do you need help?”  And then he stood there, waiting, as if I was his only concern in the world.  He maintained eye contact and just – waited – with the kindest look on his face.

Snapped out of my daze, I immediately said I was fine, embarrassed that I’d taken this guy away from others who were clearly in greater disress.

I have never forgotten that moment and never will.  That cop had everything more important to do, but he saw me through a huge mass of people.  He took a couple of seconds to care.  He put a human face on the inhuman.  I think he saved me, in a fashion, right there on the sidewalk.

I’m not saying that I haven’t paid attention to reality in the last decade, but that experience changed my view of the New York City Police Department brand, just a little bit, forever.

I have written before about tiny moments of truth that can make a huge difference.  Small gestures of grace, seemingly disconnected from the main event, which land with such a force (because the consumer expects so much less) that they have a material if not permanent impact on a brand’s ability to truly connect.

Look for the individuals who can do this for your brand.  Take care of them. Because in a stressful moment, you are not there, your CEO is not there, your PR is not there, your advertising is not there.  But that lone person is.  And for a customer, he or she may be all that makes your brand human:  something it seems the entire world could use a little bit more of right now.

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A version of this post was originally published on the Marketing Executives Networking Group‘s blog, MENG Blend.

Beyaz Weird As Possible

June 6th, 2011

Birth control ads are strange. Exhibit A: the Nuvaring ad (see HERE) where the gals take off their clothes and climb into a hot tub with their yellow bathing suits on. Each woman has a… each has a number… and… and one has a bathing cap… and then the hot tub spins like a ride at Disneyland… and then there’s a song that makes me hear Satan’s voice urging me to kill (Mommy!).

I don’t know what’s going on, other than understanding that I better use Nuvaring because remembering to take a pill every day is simply too much for me. At least I think that’s what is says.

So in a land of weird, one must rise extra high to be noticed – and I think Beyaz overshot by a mile. Check out the ad (see below or HERE):



The “it’s good to have choices” positioning is fine, but to put women in a shopping setting, where they can simply choose the men, educations, homes and discretionary incomes of their dreams off a shelf at any time – with as much thought and planning as picking a bottle of ketchup – is offensive. And what was the general idea here: that because women understand shopping the best, we can make birth control a section of a department store to help the message hit home?

Then there are the choices themselves. The home the female shopper chooses is a sweet little purple house, with a car out front that looks like it’s from the 50s. Is that where women belong, or when women were “best” – in the 50s? Have we already failed if we don’t want the picket fence?

And the stork: the only “selection” that tries to literally follow the woman once it is rejected (a stalking stork, if you will). All the women in this ad are still in their 20s: are young women supposed to have babies… or else? Note there are no “and” equations in this ad. It’s all about the “or,” as in grad school or a baby. None of the shoppers leave with more than one item.

or me, though, the most disappointing episode takes place over in the Significant Other section of the store. First of all, the store only carries men in inventory. Being homosexual is not a choice in this retail establishment. Then comes the best part: a woman standing in front of a man (under glass…), only to have another female come along with a smirk on her face and snatch the man off the shelf.

That’s nasty and cruel. And pits women against one another.

The site TresSugar.com does a great job breaking down the ad, scene by scene, object by object. Take a look if you get the chance.

Even in the fantasy world of flying snacks, sodas that never make you fat and perfect hair, I think this ad is over the top in its disdain for women.

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This is an encore presentation of a blog post originally published on Stephanie Fierman: Marketing Daily.

Will Donald Trump’s personal brand take a hit from all his recent tomfoolery?

Check out my second blog for the post, TRUMP IS JUST BEING TRUMPY.

It was my pleasure to be interviewed by Peppers & Rogers1to1 Magazine for a story on the evolution of branding.  My responses were folded into the article “Hasbro Gives Control of Its Brand to Customers” HERE

Below is an expanded version of my answers.  It’s a topic that’s at the very core of how I think about brands, communications and the marketplace.  I would welcome your thoughts.

I’m doing a story about the evolution of branding: particularly the growing influence of the customer experience in branding strategy.  How is branding strategy different now than it used to be?
The biggest difference is that a “brand” is something that marketers and companies are accustomed to controlling. In the past, a company sent all of the brand messages that general audiences heard.  Brands pulled the strings – they had all the information that was to be had, and so were able to manage consumer expectations and impressions. In that kind of world, an unhappy customer or supplier – or a disgruntled employee or competitor – could only reach as many people as were in his or her own circle of friends and associates.

Today, any individual can reach literally millions of people in real-time.  The message is whatever each person wishes it to be.  Even if that message is inaccurate or unflattering, its reach is almost limitless.  And a message someone posts can grow in influence as others pick it up and begin circulating it to ever larger circles – that’s how something becomes “viral” – which means that marketers have to be as viral as their customers, ever- vigilant and ready to address whatever comes their way from any corner of the world.

A quick example is Motrin. Motrin created an ad in 2008 that used an irreverent tone in an effort to sympathize with moms who have sore backs from carrying their infants.  This offended some moms,  Had this happened in 1988, you probably would not have heard about it unless you were personally close to one of these women.  Today, moms created and posted angry videos of their own online, the Motrin ad was viewed 400,000 times on YouTube and thousands of comments were posted on Twitter alone.  And this happened on a Saturday, by the way: we’re on consumer time now, not brand time.  So same reaction, perhaps, as many might have had 20 years ago, but much bigger megaphone.

This is something that companies and marketing teams are not organized to address – and it exposes all elements of a brand, warts and all, 24/7.  Brands are no longer the shouters: they’ve got to be the listeners. For brands that embrace a conversational relationship with the market, this can be an exciting experience that ultimately creates even more respect and love for a brand.  But for marketers who are accustomed to maintaining a tight rein, there are fundamental challenges ahead.

Branding used to be a way to gain awareness to a mass audience. But tools like social media, more robust customer data, and increased online activity in general seem to be pushing branding toward more personal engagement. What are your thoughts?
I don’t think it’s an either/or: each makes the other better.  Better data helps companies spend their mass advertising budgets more effectively and more precisely, which in turn provides air cover for more personal, individual efforts on the ground.  But there’s no question that it’s always been somewhat difficult to measure the effect of many forms of mass media, and – as other customizable channels become even sharper – there will be even more pressure on companies and their media partners to “prove” value from TV and other big efforts.

Personal engagement has another effect, as well: it raises consumer expectations.  How many times have you heard a frustrated person say “but they know me!” in response to an email addressed in the wrong language, or to the opposite gender? Consumers now know that companies have all this data, and they expect to benefit from it.  How well this data is, in fact, applied may then have an impact on whether the market listens to any messages a brand might send in any channel.

How do trust and credibility play a role in branding strategy these days, and how is it different than before?
Everything’s laid bare now.  There is virtually no nugget of information that isn’t available with a quick Google search.  An employee can create a pseudonym, for example, and tell the world how things “really” work, or that a company is being misleading or untruthful.  There’s no way to hold things back, or sweep something under the rug anymore. 

This puts intense pressure on brands to be more authentic and more worthy of consumers’ trust.  Let’s say a company manufactures merchandise overseas in unacceptable or even illegal conditions: in the past it could continue to do so for years, if not forever.  Now that people walk the globe with high-speed Internet access and cell phones that capture video, those times are over.  And if a company does get “caught” doing something today, these dynamics make the blast exponentially more damaging.

Where do you see the future of branding headed?
I’m hopeful about the future. My own professional community is full of marketers who understand that a brand is no longer corporate IP that needs to be policed and protected: it’s the beating heart of the enterprise. Instead of being talked at, consumers want to talk with a brand, and see the very human passion behind what you sell.  That can be scary, but it’s also pretty darn exciting.

What’s the biggest challenge to getting there?
One of the most difficult challenges is the uneven level of understanding and expectations of those who surround the marketer: the CEO, the CFO, the pressured head of sales and the Board, to name a few.  Executives already know what television advertising or print is, no explanation needed.  There’s comfort in that.  There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty and skepticism about dipping into a world that looks a little crazy, to do something a brand’s never done before.  And the road won’t be smooth: it’s already difficult to explain why something “negative” that’s said online is par for the course and why the brand must continue to engage, not back away.  I am very empathetic to the people on both sides of that table.

Any other thoughts?
For those who already know that good ideas rarely come from sitting behind a desk and who get charged up by listening to product users, prospects and partners, this is a great world.  Assuming a brand is being authentic, there is no real “bad” feedback – there are only lessons that help make you better and better.  There’s going to be plenty of trial and error, but this is all about getting closer to your customer, and that’s a great thing.

 

We Are All Connected

October 15th, 2010

by Stephanie Fierman

Overused phrase #535,285: “Our best asset is our people.”

We’ve all heard and/or used this phrase forever, but… do we actually behave as if it were true?

Lately, I’ve noticed an “us” vs. “them” tone creeping into some of my own professional reading from people who ought to know better – and it worries me. Two examples:

From the 9-27-10 issue of Fortune: “Secrets of an Undercover Boss” is an article in which the four CEOs that participated in CBS’ television show, “Undercover Boss,” share their observations after concealing their identities and spending some time doing non-managerial jobs inside their companies. The firms are all large professional concerns in the food and media/entertainment industries, and these are all educated, experienced executives.

To a person, all of them said that what surprised them was how hard their employees work: how hard their jobs are. This just knocked me out. In the context of business leadership, this has got to be one of the most fundamentally abhorrent things I’ve heard in some time.

“I thought it would be simple to do,” said one of the execs after driving a forklift around a warehouse. “What I learned is that it’s very hard to do. It was taking me forever… and I broke my pallet. My supervisor took me off the forklift.” You can read for yourself how well he did at a job that required him to experience actual weather.

And speaking of weather, one of the other CEOs remarked that, “When I was out… in 98° heat, I was struck by how hard these employees work.” Or a third, who thought she “knew the jobs and would be really good at them” before having ever actually done them. “They were a lot harder than I thought,” she says. “The amount of personal attention we give our [customers] blew me away.” So she is, to some extent, as disconnected from her customers’ experience as she is from the employees who create it?

And last but not least, the fourth: “I didn’t have an appreciation for how hard these guys work.”

I think one of them, though, put his finger on a critical factor underlying all of their stories: “the employees I met had incredibly different life experiences than I’ve had, and yet with every person I found amazing connections.”

In other words, the employees doing real work were “different than” which – in this context and by implication – I believe is code for “less than.” Less educated, less intelligent, less sophisticated… and therefore capable of performing tasks so simple that anyone could do them well (why, it’s SO easy, even a CEO can do it!)?  There is no logical connection between an individual’s economic circumstances and how hard he works or how much pride he takes in doing a good job.

I mean, the idea that an executive for some reason thought that she’d “be good at” any field job before she’d ever tried it shows not only a lack of awareness but a lack of respect for her workforce. Then again, this is also the individual who says, “It’s amazing how much more you can learn when you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room.”

Amen, sister.

A 2009 professional profile tells us that this CEO “takes the occasional water thrill ride herself just to demonstrate to potential investors and VIPs how much fun it really is.” I might suggest that she spend some time cleaning and maintaining such a ride so that she gets a full sense of the experience.

From the 9-30-10 issue of the Wall Street Journal: I stopped to read a column because of a large photograph of a woman I thought I recognized. I did know her – the photo was of the woman who shines shoes at my neighborhood shoe repair shop.

What I did not know about her is that she came to the U.S. from Ecuador eight years ago to earn money to support her family. She earns $20/day plus tips. She rents a room in Queens and works six days a week. She talks to her family, but has no money to travel and has not seen her husband or two daughters since leaving Ecuador.

Here’s how this WSJ column began [hang with me here]: “If salary were the arbiter of excellence, the most excellent people on earth would be hedge-fund managers, CEOs and, perhaps movie and TV stars. While experience has proved that not universally to be the case, most of us buy into the notion, myself included. So it sometimes comes as a surprise when we run across an individual barely scratching out a living whose drive and discipline and sense of excellence rivals that of those our culture celebrates with fat bonuses and fetes at charity galas.”

I am not certain who “most of us” would include but, again, we have the opinion (“myself included“) that compensation somehow equates to performing exceptionally well on the job. More money = a better job done.

This to me is hugely destructive, offensive and a whole lot of other things that a lady does not say in public. And as for fat bonuses and charity galas, does the Madoff and Kozlowski families’ ability to get and give away money equate to “excellence?” If any of us were going to resort to stupid stereotypes, in fact, wouldn’t it be the other way around? That the “regular joe” works harder than the ivory tower-encased senior executive? I guess the answer would be no… if the question was being asked of some senior executives.

We decry the fall of the American worker, and yet these are the true underlying opinions some business leaders and opinion-makers have? That “real people” are not as good, not as capable, not as useful, not as… worthy? Even when these leaders are talking about their own employees?

Go back to what we were all taught about true leadership and respect from Tom Peters and others. Be conscious of your thoughts. And if that doesn’t work, by the way, just think about what’s truly in your best interest. Most of us will get to the same place.

I am a contributor to the Marketing Executive Networking Group’s blog, MENG Blend. A version of this post was originally published HERE on the MENG site.

by Stephanie Fierman

I’ve been a passionate advocate of online personal branding and reputation management since 2007.  That was the year, as some of you know, that I had a personal experience with the power of Google – a “digi-mugging,” if you will.  Or maybe a “Web-jacking.”  

Whatever we call it, it was the moment that I came to realize that the game had started without me.   I started a blog, wrote a 4-part series on the topic (Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4) and never looked back.  I’d discovered that I would need to manage my own brand online – not just as good offense but also good defense – and wanted to help other executives do the same.

How much time are you committing to managing your own personal brand today, and – if asked – what would you advise the majority of businesspeople who are only now getting hip to the digital world?

The ball’s already in play. It’s just a question of whether you’re on the field.

Everyone already has an online personal brand.  It’s just a question of who the brand manager is.  The Web isn’t waiting with a blank slate until you’re ready to pay attention to your online persona. Everyone’s already out there – because of a wedding announcement (from your current or former marriage), past interviews, industrial gossip or rumor, quotes, political contributions, publicly-available legal filings. These are all examples of content that is already living your public life online.  Is that acceptable to you?

Your resume is no longer your resume.  Google is your resume. Google is da bomb.  Around 75% of global Internet users, or 943.8 million people, used Google services in June 2010 – more than any other Web company in the world.  In the U.S., 66% of the core searches in July (or 10.3 billion of the 15.6 billion total) were conducted on Google.  Yahoo is a distance 2nd with 17%. There’s a lot of looking going on. 

In other words…

It’s not about what you do when you’re ready: it’s about what’s going on when you’re not paying attention.  45% of employers, for example, are using social networks to gather information on job candidates, and 35% say they’ve dismissed candidates based on information found there.  Usages is even higher in the recruiting community: 85% use search engines to research candidates, and  45% say they’ve eliminated candidates based on information found on the web.  

And I’m not only talking about proactive job search (i.e., offense).  Successful executives, I believe, are accustomed to thinking about what they want, what they can do next – Master of the Universe stuff.  If I decide to look for a new job, then I’ll start paying attention to this stuff.  What I try to get across to people is that everything we’re talking about – in this particular example, the employment category – is about defense as much as offense.  What about the company that’s looking to fill a job paying 30% more than you’re making now?  Its head of HR has heard your name and does a Google search on a Sunday afternoon.  What might he find about you? 

Let’s use Facebook as an example. 

In 2009, Facebook was the most popular online destination for snooping employers.  So what, you say, you haven’t done anything dumb.  You would never, for example, post some stupid photo to your profile (duh).  But are you tagged in photos posted by other people?  Has someone tagged you and two friends drinking at a party?  People drink at parties: you know you weren’t drunk and anyone judging one photo is an idiot.  Really?  Not to be paranoid, but… are you willing to gamble that a potential employer looking at the same snapshot would agree with you?  More than half of the employers who have knocked a candidate out of the running say that provocative photos are the #1 reason for doing so.

You’ve got to make sure that you have and keep a broad view of the field.

What about where you work right now?  What would your boss, your peers, your staffers or your HR department find out about you right now if they went to Google?  Ditto for clients, (current or potential) business partners, board search, trade associations and other entities you’re likely to care about.

If someone had been wandering my Twitter profile this past weekend, they would have found this attached to a tweet.  No context, just the photo.  Do I need this? What might it communicate to someone about this person’s judgment – or mine?

And P.S:  let’s remember that tweets are now searchable on Google.  I see some of the craziest… you get the point. 

How often do you check your Google results, anyway??  (Answer:  once a week, please.)

This is not to imply that everyone should have a presence everywhere.  Not all executives are good at stream-of-conscious thinking, or can shift from heavy issues to pecking out 140 characters on Twitter.  Additionally, many professionals will need to preliminarily determine what the online cross-over is, if any, between a “personal” voice and a professional one.  And lastly – cool factor aside – social media may not be the best way for a particular executive to attract desirable “followers” or “friends” at a particular moment in time.  I insist on good defense, but offense is in the eye of the beholder.

What play do you recommend, Coach?

When advising a relative newbie, here are a few pre-game thoughts:

Take time to understand the legal and regulatory environment that surrounds you, your organization (if relevant) and the content you may be publishing. Assume that what you say is discoverable in a lawsuit and subject to SEC and other requirements (like Reg FD).  Assume that everything is “on the record” and “in print” (and act accordingly).

Remember that what you say will last forever on the Web. One of my favorite quotes in this regard is “Tweet with caution, Facebook with care, 10 years from now it will still be out there”

Listen to the conversation about you and/or your company first.  Make your own observations before jumping in.

Find a safe place to practice like a Yammer. If you want to check out Twitter, consider signing up with a pseudonym first and tweeting about gardening or fly fishing or some other like topic. You must have your own account to read or follow a tweet stream; you do not need to expose your executive self  before you’re ready.

Once you’ve decided to put your helmet on, here are a few guidelines:

Musts:
* LinkedIn – Create a profile. You need one to study the site, and it’s the place right now for executives to find others

* Facebook – Create a profile if only to lay claim to your own name

* Use a single identifier everywhere. Stick to Matt Jones or Matt P. Jones or Matthew Paul Jones



Up a Notch:
* Twitter – Wander about after opening an account under a pseudonym, and use the site’s search engine liberally to get a feel for the ebb and flow of real-time business conversations

* Start a blog

* Register on sites that let you establish a PURL.  Such sites include Digg, FriendFeed, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, OpenSalon and Squidoo. Use them every once in awhile, if you can.

* Study the search engines and try things out; focus on sites that tend to rank highest


* Share content on community sites like Flickr and Slideshare


Advanced Techniques:
* “Syndicate” your blog on sites that aggregate such posts (and have their own Google rankings)

* Work on securing offline speaking engagements, and get the events promoted on the Web

* Create your own “online” speaking engagements – your own YouTube channel, podcasts, etc.


Now before I get a bunch of comments and emails, a disclaimer: in no way is this intended to be comprehensive advice regarding what you should pack for the big game or how to behave once you get there.  It’s really just a quick slap on the back before the coin toss.  But I’m on my high horse about making sure that everyone at least knows how to protect themselves so – whether you’re warming up on the bench or helping someone who is – these are few ideas that will help avoid a penalty flag on the field.

This post was originally posted here on the Marketing Executive Network Group’s blog, MENG Blend.

Larry King held a 2-hour telethon on June 21 to raise funds for those impacted by the BP oil spill – Disaster in the Gulf: How You Can Help.

Maybe I’m missing something, but… am I the only one who doesn’t understand this?

The spill was caused by a commercial entity that the universe agrees is 100% responsible, the U.S. government has vowed to hold said entity to its promise of paying for the clean-up and for losses incurred by all affected parties, and BP itself has agreed to do same.

Now I’m not saying that BP will or won’t actually do this (or that its version of reimbursement would match yours or mine), but this telethon isn’t saying “We know BP’s 100% responsible, but we don’t believe it’ll come through so we’re doing this just in case” – it’s just your regular old telethon to raise money.

But why? Why are we raising money? Why are television watchers – many of whom cannot afford to donate – being asked to donate in the first place? Larry King said that “the point of this effort is to get immediate relief to the people and wildlife who are in urgent need,” and that “the telethon’s proceeds go directly to relief organizations.” Why isn’t BP being forced to provide “immediate relief?”

I worry that, in a perverse way, this kind of activity makes us immune – numb – to disaster and tragedy. Something happens? No need to look too closely: let’s just raise money. Let’s get a bunch of celebrities to look soulfully into the camera and ask for cash, while we view a dying, oil-blackened bird in split screen. I worry that this makes Americans feel as though we’re doing something – we sent in our $20 bucks, therefore we are good people who care and we can move on.

Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, Mariah Carey and Jeremy Piven take donations at the Gulf telethon

But can we? Are we doing any of the heavy lifting that could actually change anything, or help people? Those impacted by Hurricane Katrina are still suffering and basic infrastructure remains thin in New Orleans: where are we? Where is the outrage about how deepwater drilling continues as we speak, with no specific plan for the industry to create tools that will help it avert and address disasters in the future? Where is the outrage that BP is trying to block journalists’ access to the beaches, or skimmer boats from other countries? Why is it acceptable that individuals appear to be picking up the slack for a global corporation? These should be the items we’re all talking about, not what Justin Bieber has to say over a cheesy soundtrack.

And I worry, too, about the effect on an organization’s sense of responsibility. How does this phenomenon impact a company’s commitment to building trust in the marketplace? If BP’s actions are acceptable – and we make them acceptable by dialing an 800 number flashing on the screen and putting $10 on our credit cards – why wouldn’t a company conclude that it will not be held 100% accountable for its actions? Whether willfully or passively, why wouldn’t an organization do the minimum, or something close to it, and wait for us to blunt or even wash away its responsibility?

It’s easy to pound one’s chest and demand that “those responsible” do more, but I would suggest that, by our own actions, we may be empowering these same responsible parties to do less. There’s no guidebook that tells an organization exactly what reputable and trustworthy behavior is – society does that. Stakeholders – like you, me and Larry King – do that.

Where do you want to set the bar?

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A version of this post also appears on http://reputationgarage.com.