Bill Nichols

24 February 2014

013 – 24 February 2014

Back to Basics: Product Reviews – Why and How Best

The humble product review is a staple of the PR business.  So ‘humble’, it’s barely mentioned in any standard text -book– even PR for Dummies!

It is – everyone seems to assume – obvious: one of those ‘good things’.

But does it work?  When, why and how?  A research check to fill this ‘black hole’ finds a surprisingly subtle tool – at its best for weaker brands and with four clear tips for best practice.

So what is it?  Properly it refers to a serious robust bench-test.  Not the re-mixed product news releases which, as the excellent Tom Foremski laments, sadly pass for journalism in so many quarters. And not the rather sexier ‘product placements’ whose merits and ethics garner much ink.

It covers anything and everything.  From cars to laptops, DVD players to smart-watches and heart-rate monitors for joggers. The world-over, junior AEs and press officers engage daily in punting out their wares for various outcomes:  traditional media bench-tests (MBs), online blogger reviews (OBRs) and online customer reviews (OCRs).  (My classification incidentally).  Four- and five-stars on Amazon is the new aspirational frontier.

And the value of reviews? 

Thirty years ago, an early agency boss obsessed about them.  They demanded: constant reviewer contact; great clarity and precision; and total care and attention to every aspect. They helped companies, he argued, ‘punch above their weight’.  And they achieved, he believed, greater PR RoI than any other output.   But that was 30 years ago.  Essentially gut-instinct and without evidence.

Wind forward 20 years.  Our Paris office was fast-disappearing under boxes and boxes of Apple kit.  Soon three of our four-strong account team worked full time to manage it all.  I was increasingly sceptical.  We were preaching to the converted.  Squeezing out far more valuable PR opportunities.   And my shins were badly bruised.  But hey, who argues with Apple?  And that was my gut-instinct…

One for the weak

Now today.  Well, smugly, we were both right (my old boss and I)!  New research (*) confirms that properly-conducted product-reviews deliver greatest benefits to weak brands.   They are the fast-track to stronger positioning.  Positive reviews for the weak create a virtuous circle.  More sales, increased brand equity etc.  Conversely negative reports are far less impactive on weaker brands because less visible.

Meantime, product reviews have minimal impact for stronger brands.  They simply reinforce the perceptions of loyalists and refuseniks alike.  While weaker brands make progress by ‘flipping the funnel’, once you are in the top brand tier with established equity, further major market shifts require high-visibility classic advertising and promotional tools.

Four tips to make reviews work

And the best techniques?

  1. Make comprehensive (non-promotional) information available and easily accessible for reviewers.  As separate confidential Henley research I supervised confirmed, social media will set colour, context and muzak but hard data will create the final shape.
  2. Establish brand communities and early adopter clubs.  Perceived customer privilege will provide ‘seed’ positive feedback and enable rapid modification to address the ‘negative’.
  3. Consciously seek out expert review sites.  They often set the review editorial agenda for others.
  4. Incentivise your evangelists to post early reviews.

And, last but far from least, beware subterfuge!  In the social media age, if you’re found out posting negative reviews for competitors, you can create a tsunami for yourself…

Not so humble after all those product reviews…

-ends-

(*) Ho Dac, N.N, Carson, S.J and Moore, W.L.  Journal of Marketing, November 2013.

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Bill Nichols

29 January 2014

PR Vital Signs: Maturity and The New Dashboard

Dr. Bill Nichols  - 012 – 29 January 2013

It’s one thing to measure, say, reputation:  quite another to understand and manipulate what influences that metric.  And for all the brouhaha about PR evaluation, here there is silence.  More or less.

For some answers,Vital Signs Report (2014) publishes today.  The first in a benchmark series, its insights flow from my recent collaboration with leading tech PR firm, EML Wildfire (1).  Its data is provided by some 80 clients and contacts across the firm’s network in the UK, US and Europe.

Unusually, we assessed the combined impact of in-house and agency teams: i.e. the total PR competency.  From the literature (2), we identified 10 possible factors or influences.  And we concluded by creating a three-part ‘dashboard’ for any PR organisation.

First up – ‘Business Results’ (i.e. leads, sales, profit)

In PR this is the P&L equivalent.  It tracks immediate gains and losses.  Here our top factor is ‘strategic planning’ (SP).  In fact, statistically, it’s the only significant factor that explains a substantial component of ‘Results’ (3).  Overall our sample is most positive about near-term SP.  It commends teams for such aspects as messaging, business strategy alignment, action plans and focused campaigns.

But our respondents are far more cautious further out.   To improve effectiveness, they highlight:  applying evidence consistently, sustaining a mission and pursuing long-term advantage.

And?  Other factors like creativity or techniques?  Actually not much else has any impact. Sobering given all the chat.

Second up – target ‘Reputation’

We see reputation as the ‘balance sheet’ equivalent.  The long-term tracking of net PR assets on the PR dashboard.  Here two factors are in play.

First, and unsurprisingly, ‘relationship orientation’ is the strongest influence on reputation. Attitudinally – the soft stuff – our teams are particularly well-placed.  They are, our sample reports, committed.  They seek authenticity.  They respect stakeholders and they will ‘go the extra mile’.  But they’re less effective at the practical execution of relationship-building.  Such as the analysis of broader perspectives, dynamic tracking of the influencer landscape and (again!) planning.

Second and intriguingly, limited evidence suggests that PR’s prized ability to generate ‘opportunistic’ activity may be a negative influence on reputation.  Short-term results gain: long-term reputational pain.

Third, bonus ball – ‘Maturity’

Our study also introduces a third lead measure: maturity.  It’s the equivalent of cash-flow and it’s a potentially major contribution suggested by the EML Wildfire team.  Maturity is a well-established construct in organisational studies.  Operationally it’s best characterised by that PR jewel: the ability to manage the unexpected and to cope with ambiguity.

To create a clear blueprint for managing maturity, we identified three factors at work.  They are professionalism, engagement and, especially, leadership.  Specifically maturity deepens as PR seniors acquire serious leadership skills and, above all, the confidence to play an active role at the C-Level.

Seeking enlightenment

As business gurus confirm, the act of measurement adds value if – and only if – it helps define and deliver a desirable outcome. Such as, in PR, a behavioural change.  This presupposes we understand the mechanism.  That we know what and how to influence the target.  A little more ‘X’, a little less ‘Y’ – that kind of thing.

But, as the Headmaster of Eton observed recently, “we live in an age of measurement and not of enlightenment.”   How true of PR.  Some cling to the old-time religion of the AVE. Others evangelise Barcelona and the new analytics.   In this ‘promised land’ we measure anything – and everything.

But we have little understanding of the influencing factors. Vital Signs Report (2014) offers our starting point.  Especially that new measure of maturity.  It correlates well with both results and reputation.  It may, we think, be the key moderator – a crucial focus for out study’s next round.  Join us at EML Wildfire to add your inputs to what is planned as a long-term project.

More to follow and, meantime, here’s to enlightenment!

-ends-

(1) Special thanks to directors Debby Penton, Lorraine Jenkins and Richard Parker.

(2)  Based on the Nordic three-dimensional service quality model.  So (A) hard/technical = (i) media platform, (ii) measurement and evaluation, (iii) techniques; (B) functional/integrating = (iv) resources/budget, (v) strategic planning, (vi) leadership, (vii) creativity; and (C) people/reputational =  (viii) professionalism, (ix) engagement and (x) relationship orientation.  Each factor successfully tested using Cronbach’s alpha: eight > .7 and two >.6.

(3) Using the 95% confidence level and multiple regression analysis.

 

 

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Bill Nichols

4 January 2014

011 – January 2014

Bye Bye Scepticism: How and Why CSR Communications Works

If the PR world has an equivalent of the UK’s PPI mis-selling scandal, it is surely the CSR-based communications campaign.   .

Note, this isn’t scepticism about underlying policy or philosophy.  Heavyweights on either side – e.g. Forbes (for) and WSJ (against) – continue to debate.  Companies may, or may not, have a social responsibility.  But, motivation aside, behaviour indicates value.  90% of Fortune 500 companies have explicit CSR objectives.  Half issue specific CSR reports1.  Even two-thirds of crusty CFOs see return, says McKinsey.

But it is serious scepticism about the current value of CSR presentation investment.   All too often CSR campaigns appear worthy and unfocused.  Just-in-case insurance policies, they ‘tick’ the politically- correct compliance ‘box’.  Yet how they work – or to what intended hard business outcome (if any) -remains unclear.

But the research case for the value of strategic planned CSR communication really is building.  And, as Keynes supposedly said, “when the facts change…”  Here’s how.

Evidence and Engagement

The B2C research ‘jury’ is already long-term supportive.  Active CSR promotion drives positive brand and product evaluations.  It also increases both satisfaction and loyalty2.

Now new US research3 is surprisingly positive about B2B.  For corporate comms professionals, it offers a practical evidenced prescription.

As a necessary preliminary, the new work distinguishes two forms of CSR engagement for B2B:

  • Business practice (BP) CSR focuses on e.g. employees and customers: think brand     sponsorship or cause-related product marketing.
  • Philanthropic (PH) CSR addresses e.g. community and third-sector: think community volunteering, social marketing or corporate charitable contributions.

BP CSR and Trust

In the B2B context, BP delivers trust and (ultimately) enhanced loyalty.  The BP toolkit is particularly powerful, the research finds, in three specific scenarios:

  • Compensating high market uncertainty or turbulence
  • Supporting/shifting product perceptions
  • Offsetting infrequent customer engagement and shallow relationships.

How and why does it work?   BP is practical or ‘instrumental.  Grounded in classic social exchange theory, it’s based on competitive ‘survival’ drivers and highlights concrete actions. This is active stakeholder marketing in which something is clearly ‘traded’.  And the acquired strong CSR reputation signals trustworthiness.

PH CSR and Belonging

But now posit situations where trust is necessary but not sufficient.  Where, say:

  • Competitive market intensity is high
  • Or the customer itself reveals a strong CSR orientation.

If your task is to create a strong association – or ‘belongingness’ – then, prompts the research, switch to the PH toolkit.

How and why?  PH activities are soft: expressive, emotional, even ‘warm and fuzzy’.  They  signal the societal or ethical.  Their outcomes are human welfare and goodwill.  They drive measurable customer identification.

So let’s leave philosophy and political correctness to others.  Even this long-term sceptic concurs: as a communications toolkit, it seems to work.  Embrace it!

-ends-

Hope you enjoyed the latest blog.  Thanks for reading and do please comment.  For earlier and regular updates join me on Astrophel for publications and blog or on Linkedin and Twitter.  

(1) Luo and Bhattacharya (2009), Journal of Marketing, 73 (6) 198-213.  (2) Bhattacharya and Sen (2003), Journal of Marketing, 67 (2) 76-88. (3) Homburg, Stierl and Bornemann (2013), Journal of Marketing, 77 (6) 54-72.

 

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Bill Nichols

6 September 2013

Telling Tales:  The Narrative Revenue Opportunity   

009 – September 2013

‘Narrative, narrative’ everywhere.  It’s a staple of consultancy creds.  Every PR campaign and every brand, apparently, should have one.

But how exactly do you sell it?  Make money? And, as a client, what are you buying?

Cynics say 20 years of narrative chat is just consultant re-packaging – backstories and news agendas remixed.  A case of: ‘the sun shone down, having no alternative, on the nothing new’ – to quote a favourite narrative opening!  (‘A’)

Maybe.  But my own research review is surprisingly positive. It comes with two caveats.  That: (1) PR folks really are the great storytellers; and (2) PR consultancy management teams really want to exit their traditional comfort zone and exploit their intellectual assets (e.g. storytelling).

So what are the prospects?  This little narrative is a ‘will-they-do-it?   And like ‘whodunnits’, we need means, motive and first…

Opportunity Knocks

No question, storytelling is fundamental to effective PR.   It’s the ultimate human way to learn and persuade. But, as content consumption fragments across multiple formats and platforms, it’s ever more challenging.  So, agencies that deliver a clearly-defined service offering in this environment should command premium fees.

And those fees are likely dwarfed by the wider marketing opportunity.  Especially the bridge from research.   From NPD and market planning to brand personality, the skilled storyteller is in demand.

Here’s why. Today serious marketers get much input from advanced quant analytics.  It’s marvellous, necessary but insufficient.  By definition, quant analytics structures, reduces and limits – often using predetermined models.  However detailed, for example, a segmentation grid lacks intimacy. To paraphrase: analytics quantifies everything but teaches the human value of very little.   This is – popularly – red-light thinking (‘B’).

So marketers want more.  To capture, and apply, active market learning.  To be inside the room.  Watching, listening and participating.  They want the human stories.  Stories with time-lines which are granular and richly revealing.  Stories, not least, which are suffused with an emotional texture as we hear, see and feel what actually matters (‘C’).

This is the province of  the storyteller (PR as bridge or translator).  As the philosopher-linguist, Roland Barthes wrote:  “narrative does not show, does not imitate…. (It is) a higher order of relation which has its emotions, its hopes, its dangers, its triumphs.” (D).

Why and How – Motive and Means

Sounds like fun?  But there’s far more motive than good fees.   For PR storytellers, this is a way up the food-chain to that mystical top table.  Buyers want new thinking and possibilities for innovation.  Per Coca Cola VP, Stan Sthanunathan, they want: ‘inspiration and provocation’ .  (http://www.slideshare.net/TheARF/research-must-change-11257698).  In short, they want the green-light stuff.  Real value-added.

Now, you’re thinking, the tough part: the means.   Can PR deliver?

Relax.  If you really want to get into narrative, there are endless options for classy models and frameworks.  You’ll be on solid ground, centuries old.  Up there with the old pros like lawyers and doctors.  There’s literary theory, narratology, linguistics and one more…

Ethnography (out of anthropology) is one of the oldest research forms.  It’s about immersion (‘ethno-dunking’ as some practitioners delightfully call it).  It’s become a major tool for blue-chip market research teams from Xerox and Wells Fargo to Procter & Gamble.

And ethnographic storytelling has emerged a major way of transforming viewpoints and disrupting old modes of thinking (C).

And not just for marketers.   It is, researchers suggest, capable of driving a new ‘storytelling organisation’.

What About PR?

So a massive opportunity for in-house and agency teams alike; strong motive; and really powerful means.    But ‘will-they-do-it?’

Mmm.  Would love to see it.  But the PR industry seems to hesitate when offered the chance to move off home base.  Fear? Lack of confidence?  Purism?

Watch this space. Another chapter? Maybe…

(A)  Beckett, S, Murphy (1938); (B) Green A, Creativity in PR (2010); (C) Cayla, J and Arnould E, Journal of Marketing (2013, No.4 – July); (D) Barthes, R, Image, Music, Text (1977).

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Bill Nichols

6 April 2013

Something Fishy and A New Narrative for Misunderstood Bankers

005 (April 2013)

A fun week for communicators.  ‘Candour’ duly re-appeared.  Fresh from its outing in the Francis NHS Staffs report, it featured in the Salz review of the Barclays Bank brouhaha. And alongside the ‘mass bloodletting’ (Financial Times) of ex-senior HBOS figures by the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.

So candour is now definitely the ‘new black’ in comms and the poster-child for authenticity.

Meantime, please also welcome back the horsemeat saga. This time though in the guise of dodgy and decidedly not-so-candid fish.  (A development predicted, note, with unusual foresight in my previous blog!).

So consumer trust is getting a battering (sorry couldn’t resist) on all sides. But how do you restore a bank’s – or, er, a fish supply chain’s – reputation?

Reflecting on this rather seasick week, here are comments and recommendations from an anonymous banking insider.

“All this vitriol is unfair.  Simply out-of-order.   We need a new narrative.  Truth is we’re just an ordinary bunch of corporate managers.  Just like you’d meet in any wine bar, five-star hotel or business class anywhere.  We’ve the same motive as everyone else too.  It’s just that our opportunity was that much greater. Not our fault that it was more than the usual fiddled expenses. And the means?  Well what a smokescreen: no one understood how it worked and, let’s be fair, neither did we!

“Actually it’s doubly unfair to blame us current senior bankers.  Banks have been in the reputation ‘toilet’ for decades.   Back before 2008 they didn’t give a fig for the average lazy ‘can’t be bothered to switch’ customer: couch cash-cows we called them.  Consumers’ problem: not ours.  And as for the typical SME, to be honest banks provided a social service.  I mean, imagine looking after the local corner-shop?  All that cash, greasy banknotes, messy transactions and endless aggravation over the overdraft.

“So what then about candour and transparency?  Simply isn’t going to happen.  Give it a couple more years and it’ll all blow over.  The politicians and the lawyers, they know it.  They’re all in the same game.  £17 million for the Salz report: see what I mean?

“Now if you really wanted to fix the banks (or any other large corporate), you’d first, as the Yanks say, put the bosses right behind the eight-ball.  Never mind BASLE III and some computation no one understands.  You’d enshrine in statute clear lines of responsibility and accountability for company officers alongside total individual liability. Like the old partnership model.  Then reputation would really count.  It would be a constant risk – every moment of every day.  The senior guys would have to care!  (But imagine that principle applied in government departments or the NHS.  The politicians would never dare!).

Second, build reputation management into the banks’ risk assessment structures alongside the numbers.   That would put reputation clearly and decisively on the board.    But hey the comms girlies just do that CSR flannel right?

Third, devolve power consistently to the local branches.  Make community engagement (community knowledge and practical empowered local communications) a fundamental principle of how we banks do business.  It would transform perceptions – and performance.

Fourth and finally, take a lesson from all those proud fish-and-chip shop owners on TV this week.  The best of them know all their customers and can tell them which trawler caught which fish – even at what time!  Now imagine you knew your banker’s name. Met them socially.  Bought local services from local people.  That they could even confirm – like the old-style local building societies – the source of your loan.  In short imagine that you were connected. That you trusted and were trusted.

“Wow, what a fantasy.   Isn’t going to happen.  We’ll be more careful.  Maybe bung the government some more tax.  OK there’ll be something fishy from time to time.   But what’s to worry in the odd bad smell?  Or the odd Salzy report?”

-ends-

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Bill Nichols

10 March 2013

More than Burgers and Bolognese: Crises, Trust and Exit Strategy

004 -March 2013

Some eight weeks on, the horsemeat saga has generated thousands of tasteless jokes (sorry) and cringe-making headlines.  More significantly, it has corroded trust in major retailers.  Among consumers most prominently.  But also across the web of stakeholder relationships which sustain major organisations.

Late last week Tesco fought back.  Understandably.  Alone among their peers, they faced a triple whammy:   still-eroding trust;  record low satisfaction scores in the latest ‘Which?’ survey; and continuing media speculation over the firm’s turnaround strategy.  Serious pain in the corporate communications office.  Ouch.

And credit where it’s due.  The firm’s new mono-print, crystal-clear message to customers is a model.  Dispensing with usual legalese, corporate muzak and CSR harmonies, this is comms writing at its audience-engaging best.   The crisis is, Tesco acknowledges in near-passable blank verse, about more than “burgers and Bolognese… We know that all this will only work if we are/open about what we do…  Seriously/This is it/We are changing.”

Called to comment on BBC 5 Live’s Saturday breakfast show, I doused detached amusement under the 6AM shower and focused.   And… well the horsemeat case offers a compelling new perspective. Here’s why.

Most crises (and crisis texts) have a clear flashpoint or ‘crime’ (fire, oil-spill, hospital infection, sexual misconduct).  They offer a caste of ‘victims’.   Quick wins for politicians, commentators and bloggers alike.  In response, practitioners can deploy admirable models, processes and procedures.   Granted they’re too rarely rehearsed and applied, yet readily available.

But here the only flashpoint is a pub joke.  Lots of murky dealings. But no deaths.  No injuries.  No victims.  And no clear focus for crisis recovery.

So, unusually, the horsemeat case exposes the submerged side of a crisis ‘iceberg’. As a wonderfully-colourful crime-fiction narrative plays out in the headlines, reputational damage accelerates.  Rather like the MPs’ expenses case and the Daily Telegraph’s long, painful exposure, this could run for months and months.  For fake receipts, dodgy home-lettings, gardeners and freshly-cleaned moats, read – maybe – fish, dairy products, vegetables, fruit…

Robust social psychology models, meanwhile, confirm that trust (together with satisfaction – hence Tesco’s action) is a major determinant of all types of stakeholder retention.   Responsibility (the buck stops with Tesco) correlates positively with reputational damage and negatively with purchasing intentions (*).

So the case reminds crisis comms practitioners that, like military planners, they should look beyond prevention/deterrence, mission and securing the immediate target to the long-term exit strategy.  When the lights are off, the noise abated and the tweeting stilled, how do we emerge with our reputation asset intact – even enhanced?  How do we keep CEOs focused on the tough stuff?

Many compliments to that anonymous copywriter.  It is, most certainly, about more than burgers and Bolognese.

(*) Coombs (2012).

 

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