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dreamstime_xs_52765848The AHA team recently met with several of our clients and a few prospective clients to plan out communications initiatives. More and more often, digital content and brand storytelling is an important component in how we are helping our clients to tell their stories, moving forward.

In this day and age, an organization cannot rely solely on media relations or publicity to tell their stories. More and more media outlets are shifting to sponsored content, especially in the “softer” news segments (think breakfast TV, talk shows, lifestyle and business sections of publications and, of course, online). They might not announce it, but there are partnership and sponsorship deals happening that result in advertorial-like coverage. The challenge right now is that the media outlets doing this aren’t exactly being transparent with their audiences about the source of the content. As communications professionals, we all know it. We can spot a sponsored segment a mile away, but our clients are not as immersed in the media and may not.

It is harder and harder to get “earned” media coverage (editorial coverage that is pitched to media and is covered because it is a solid news item or tells a good story). That means that organizations must tell their own stories. These days, people get online and go to a search engine to find out information. This is an opportunity for your organization to tell your story and to use search engine optimization (SEO) to help potential clients, customers or other stakeholders find you.

There are now full-time digital content producer/manager/editor/curator positions at many companies. Creating your own content and housing it online is not something that is leading edge or brand new, but it is something that every company needs to be doing.

Rather than lament the decrease in media coverage, smart organizations are seeing this as a huge opportunity to build relationships with stakeholders, to engage with their communities, and to tell their own stories in an interesting, engaging, compelling and often entertaining way. Articles, Q&As, videos, photos, blogs, podcasts, videocasts… there are so many mediums to choose from and, depending on the demographic and content consumption habits of your stakeholder groups and communities, you may choose to use two, three or four different approaches to sharing information.

One of the first things we do with a client who wants to start or increase their digital content production is to look at who they want to connect with and where these individuals and groups are online, and we find out how they consume content, what their online habits are, and what are they interested in. It is a combination of an audit and research approach that provides us with solid information on what communications tools, tactics and mediums to use in order to engage in a fulsome manner. Knowing this allows you to build out your content/editorial schedule, to identify how to measure success, and to set key performance indicators.

Once you have created or produced content, it’s not enough to upload it and hope someone will read or view it; you need to think like a publisher and promote it to your potential audience. And you need to continue to monitor and engage. This is a key element of the plan that we focus on when working with clients. SEO, promotion of your content, identifying and connecting with influencers who can help expand and extend your audience base, and engaging with your readers/viewers in a timely, authentic and relationship-building approach is a long-term commitment that increases in value as you build momentum (and relationships).

It is an exciting time for organizations with a good story to tell. The ability to create great content and build an audience is in our hands. And it can be an incredible asset when done well.

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Social MediaWe have had an exceptional response to our Social Media 101 series (Facebook; Twitter). In fact, I met with a client the other day, a senior executive at a high-profile organization, who told me that he really appreciates the series because it is helping him to better understand social media tools, technology and tactics. He laughingly told me: “I kind of have to fake it a bit when my team talks about social media because I know so little and I don’t want to admit that to them.” And he said that our series is giving him the basics, so now social media is starting to make sense to him – and that means more productive meetings with his staff.

People like this client are exactly why we are producing this series. Many people understand social media, but there are also others who don’t. In our experience, there are many senior executives – CEOs, presidents, executive directors, general managers, vice presidents, directors and senior managers – who may have limited knowledge or understanding of social media in general. Some of these professionals may even work in the marketing or communications departments or divisions and, because of their leadership role, they don’t get as involved in the use of social media as others who handle the day-to-day activities. Because of this, they feel like they don’t know enough about social media and, often, they don’t really want to publicly admit this because they are in senior positions.

It’s a tough spot to be in. These are smart, engaged professionals. It can sometimes be challenging for them to grasp even the basics of social media because they are busy and social media technologies and tools change so rapidly and regularly. This blog series – Social Media 101 – aims to help anyone who is struggling with social media basics to understand the networks and use them a bit better. We know we can’t be everything to everyone, but providing a brief overview with a little bit of context of how social media is being used today seems to be useful to quite a few people – from the feedback we have heard.

With that in mind, after asking a few people who expressed interest in this series, we have a list of the topics that we are going to cover here over the next few months. If there is something you would like to know about that isn’t listed here, please send us a message and let us know.

Upcoming Social Media 101 posts are:

  • LinkedIn (including LinkedIn Pulse)
  • YouTube
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • Instagram
  • Snapchat
  • Vine
  • Tumblr
  • Reddit

We will, of course, be updating this list as needed. And, if it continues to be popular, we may go back and revisit it, adding specific ways to use these networks to engage your stakeholder groups and communities.

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Question mark imageWhat’s the purpose? That’s a question that we often ask when working with clients to plan proactive, positive PR campaigns, in delivering issues or crisis communication, and in creating any type of content – articles, online, web or social media copy, video, news releases, speeches, presentations, media pitches, brochures, ads and so much more. And it’s one we ask clients over and over again because it’s easy to get sidetracked with what you can do – and the reason for doing it can take a backseat.

The challenge that we, as communicators, face in today’s world is that we have so much opportunity to connect. There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of channels and mediums compared to the limited few that existed back in the pre-social media days. There is always going to be a shiny new social media network or channel being promoted, a website being refreshed, or an idea to run a contest in order to build followers, fans or supporters. But before any of these ideas pass beyond the brainstorming session, it’s crucial to ask the question: What’s the purpose?

Clearly defining what you want to achieve is the first step. It allows you to better understand exactly who you want to engage or build a relationship with, identify the channel and/or medium that will work best to reach your stakeholders or target audience, develop effective messaging and positioning, and to set your objectives and campaign goals so that you can measure your success or ascertain what you need to shift or revise, if you aren’t hitting your targets.

Here at AHA, for example, our main purpose in creating content for this blog is to showcase our knowledge, expertise and experience in the areas of strategic communications, such as proactive PR, issues and crisis communication, content creation, speechwriting, brand journalism, social media, media relations, event management, etc. Our secondary purpose is for search engine optimization so that someone searching online for our expertise can find us. When we are writing the blog posts or producing Fast Take Friday video blogs, we always keep our purpose in mind. Our clients tend to come to us through referral, finding us via an online search, or they see us on social media – and want to know more about us. Our website and this blog give them the information they need to drive them to action – to pick up the phone and call us to discuss their needs and find out whether we might be a good fit.

For example, we work with several clients that produce consumer goods. When working with them on publicity, events, social media engagement and content creation, our focus is on engaging potential customers to purchase their products. We use storytelling, brand journalism and great writing and editing to engage potential customers with a call to action to purchase.

Another example of this is when an organization engages directly with potential customers using tools like Facebook contests. They can promote their products in a manner that brings more people to like their Facebook page, they get to provide information about their products in the context of the contest, they help to raise awareness of those products and their company, and it helps them to build relationships with their target market. Contests work for them. But they don’t work for everyone. If we, at AHA, ran a contest – we might get new likes for our Facebook page, but how many of those likes would ever turn into a new client? Not many… The people who may decide to hire us aren’t going to choose us because they might win something. They want an agency that is experienced, skilled and smart. Creating content for this blog helps to showcase this to potential clients.

Asking, “What’s the purpose?” is a big question that can help you to become more effective in your communications efforts. It’s an easy-to-use and important question that should be asked daily.

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AHA - Twitter ImageNext up in our Social Media 101 series is Twitter. Twitter is an online social networking and microblogging service that allows users to send and read short 140-character messages called “tweets.” As of the first quarter of 2016, Twitter averaged 310 million monthly active users.

If Facebook is like a coffee shop where (almost) everyone knows your name, Twitter is a busy airport pub where you are welcome to join the conversations that interest you and connect with strangers (who can often become clients, colleagues and even friends).

Depending on your organization and what you provide – Twitter can support your sales and offer timely customer service. It can provide you with an understanding of how people perceive your industry, company or a specific incident, event or activity. It can help you to showcase your expertise and subject matter knowledge and it can help you to expand and extend your network. It is a great engagement tool.

Twitter provides an excellent opportunity to join the conversations that matter to you and your organization. On Twitter, your goal should be to engage followers (real ones, not the fake bots that just up your follower count) in authentic and timely conversations and discussions. You can use Twitter to link to a blog post, make a statement on something happening in the news, share your opinion, ask questions of others, and do just about everything you would do if you had the opportunity to be in the same room with a whole lot of smart people who are relevant to your world. (Just remember that you need to be relevant to their world too for this to work.)

The best way to engage and increase your followers is to follow others who you are interested in and participate in discussions. Respond to questions and comments and showcase who you are and what you bring to the party! Twitter is like a great big cocktail party where people are interested in what you have to say.

Writing in 140 characters can take some getting used to (and Twitter is about to make it a little easier to do this), especially if you aren’t succinct. Writing less is an art and it’s worth it to be thoughtful about the craft of writing tweets. A great tweet can be retweeted (shared) by your followers and increase your reach – as well as bring more people to follow you.

Like Facebook, it’s important, to understand your social media brand and voice and have that reflected on your Twitter account. And because Twitter is fast-paced and smart, it is also crucial that you understand how important it is to think through what you post here. There are many, many examples of Twitter #fails (if you don’t know what a # (hashtag) is – we’ll explain that in an upcoming post) because someone posted something inappropriate, confidential or even inflammatory. Writing in 140 characters might seem like nothing, but think of it as writing a really short article with a readership of millions – and be sensitive to how they might perceive what you are saying.

Twitter is a hot social network for organizations and it’s important that you are on there and know what’s going on. It’s equally important that you identify what you want to generate through Twitter – and know when, why and what you want to share with the Twitterverse. It can be an exceptionally positive tool or it can be one that creates issues that drive you to spend valuable time retracting, explaining, clarifying and apologizing.

Do yourself a favour and take Twitter seriously. You wouldn’t disseminate information or opinions that reflected poorly on your organization through email, at an event, at a tradeshow or when making a presentation. Don’t do it on Twitter either. There is a great deal of power in the hands of the people on Twitter. Respect them and your brand.

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dreamstime_xs_54104060I have recently had several conversations with colleagues and clients about the importance and value of a strategic approach. One former colleague, and now friend, who leads the communications efforts for a large multi-national organization was complaining about the lack of strategic thinking from her team, many of whom are mid-20s to late 30s. She was wondering what she could do about it and whether strategic thinking can be taught.

I said that I believed that it could. It takes effort and, wait for it – strategic leadership on her part – but I think that part of the challenge of today’s fast paced, 24/7 connected world is that we don’t provide enough time to develop strategic thinkers in the workplace.

My friend was saying that she sees an excellent work ethic, strong integrity and great intentions from her team, but that their solutions and approaches are tactical in nature – and are often reactive. The conversation was interesting because in the past several months, we have had clients come to us with exactly this type of challenge. We have been asked to review communications plans, campaigns and other initiatives because what they feel is missing at their organization is the team’s ability to see the big picture, recognize opportunities – and risk – and to frame solutions or their approach within the broader organizational strategy.

Supporting people to incorporate strategic thinking is a commitment to your team – and it’s one that should be taken seriously. To begin with, it is important to encourage individuals to think things through and not just react. But, let’s be honest, this is not an easy thing to do these days with fast and furious conversations happening on social media – which is why a social media content, distribution and issues strategy is crucial. Asking for several solutions to a challenge or for an opportunity and helping people to identify the one that offers the best long-term benefit for the organization is important. It’s easy to step in and do it yourself, if you are a strategic thinker… but if you want to help develop this skill with your team, your role should be to support and provide feedback as they work through this process themselves.

Creating a culture where your team is encouraged to ask “why” and “when” questions is also a key element. The “how” usually comes out in the tactics once you have answered “why” and “when.” And when showcasing a solution or idea, having the person presenting explain what underlying strategic goal it serves and what impact it will have on internal and external stakeholders also helps to shift the thinking to the bigger picture.

Strategic thinking is a crucial skill to have in any professional role – especially in communications and, of course, in leadership. Helping your team develop and increase their strategic thinking ability is an excellent investment in the people and in the organization. The benefits of helping your team develop this skill are well worth the time and resources it takes.

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