Monday, July 26, 2010

Social Media Redux

My post two weeks ago entitled "Social Media: Beyond the Hype" probably generated more discussion than any of my previous posts. I suspected it would. That's why I wrote on the subject, not so much to attract attention but to address a growing phenomenon that might be a bit, well, over-hyped.

Some misinterpreted my post as being anti-social media (I like that term). Not at all. I continue to increase my own use of social media and think that it will become an increasingly useful marketing tool. But since most A/E firms are just beginning to test the waters, I think it wise to approach social media with realistic expectations.

In that regard, it's worth noting a few limitations:
  • Few client decision makers appear to be using social media at this time
  • The best social media strategy is content driven, and most A/E firms lack good content
  • There are a growing number of companies that are blocking access to social networking sites
Since writing the original post, I've done a little more research. I wanted to test my conclusions, especially since they elicited some skepticism. Here's what I learned:

Few clients are using social media. No one really seems to disagree with this point. I can't find any data for either our industry or other professional service sectors. But anecdotally, there seems to be broad consensus across the professions that client decision makers generally are not using social media to any substantial degree. asked professional service buyers what methods they used most to identify and familiarize themselves with service providers. Social media was near the bottom of the list (26%); blogs were dead last (24%). The traditional marketing methods were still by far the most useful to clients.

I've read some who argue that there is still value in reaching "influencers" within client organizations, peer groups, trade associations, and media that are using social media. I won't debate the point. But marketing has traditionally sought out decision makers. If social media aims for a different audience, we ought to at least acknowledge that and craft our strategy accordingly.

On the other hand, some in our industry apparently have used social media in helping them actually secure new work. I'm not aware of the specifics, but I am pretty confident that they represent a small minority. If you're in that group, I'd love to hear how you managed to connect with decision makers.

The best social media strategy is content driven.
In my previous post, I referred to a recent study by that showed that content drives business usage of social media. The top business uses were:
attending webinars, listening to podcasts, reading user ratings and reviews, subscribing to feeds from business information and news sites, reading articles and blog posts, and searching for business information.

The problem for most A/E firms is that they have little interesting content to share. So what then will drive traffic to your page or profile on social networking sites? I question the efficacy of the popular "build it and they will come" approach. Good content is what will keep them coming. And that makes effectively using social media much less convenient than many firms are thinking.

More companies are blocking access to social media. I noted in my earlier post a study that found that 54% of companies are blocking access by employees to social networking sites. I recently discovered another study that concluded the number was 76%. This study also found that the number of companies blocking access had grown 20% in just six months in 2009.

Obviously this trend is not a positive one for the continued growth of B2B social media marketing. How much of an impact it will be I can't speculate. Might the trend swing in the other direction once more companies discover the business benefits of social networking sites? I doubt it. There is too much concern these days about potentially disruptive personal use of company computers and networks.

My advice: Don't ignore social media as part of your marketing arsenal. But make it an extension of a content-driven strategy. The fundamentals of effective marketing really haven't changed that much. We now have more means that ever before to deliver our messages. But you still have to have something compelling to say to attract an audience.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Your Audience Defines Good Communication

Are you a good communicator? Many technical professionals readily admit that's not their strength. And that's only half the problem.

Communication is a partnership. Presenting your message proficiently is just one side of the process. Your audience has a critical role. They have to receive the message, and sometimes they don't do their part all that well either. Ironically, the more communication channels proliferate, the more difficult it can become to connect with your audience.

In the most basic terms, communication involves conveying a thought from your brain to someone else's. The process is fraught with difficulties. First, you need a clear concept in your own mind. Muddled thought is where poor communication often begins. Then you need to be able to adequately articulate the message, and send it in some way that your audience can receive it as something that approximates what you were thinking.

While the emphasis is usually given to the one sending the message, both parties have a share in making the communication successful. I liken it to a quarterback passing the football to a receiver. Once again, we tend to give more attention to the thrower. But if the receiver drops the ball, no matter how well thrown, the result is an incomplete pass.

These days, I think receivers are fumbling more messages than ever before. The big problem is that they're suffering from communication overload, an issue I addressed in a previous post. The result is that it's harder to get people's attention, to have them carefully read or listen to what you're trying to communicate, or to remember it long enough to act on your message.

My point isn't to excuse the shortcomings of communication senders, but to suggest that we give more consideration to the audience when formulating our messages. That will help us become better communicators. A few tips to keep in mind:

Remember that first impressions count. Your initial message--be it the title to your article, the subject line in your email, or the opening statement in your presentation--often colors the communication to follow. Don't take it lightly. This is not only your call to attention; it shapes expectations about what you're about to say. And it may even influence how it is interpreted.

A case in point: I gave my last post a rather provocative title, "Social Media: Beyond the Hype," thinking it would attract more attention. It did. Some of the feedback I got was a bit defensive, coming from fans of social media. I suspect that some of them were put on the defensive as soon as they saw the title.The interesting thing was that those who seemed to have the strongest affinity for social media also seemed more prone to misread what I had written.

That's human nature. We all filter communication based on our interests, beliefs, experiences, and preferences. Navigating those filters is an important facet of effective communication. What if I had titled the post "Social Media: Some Questions to Consider"? Would the social media advocates have read the article differently? I think they might have seen that my post really wasn't all that negative (I obviously use social media myself!).

Likewise, your initial communication sets the stage for what's to follow. Make a splash if you need to attract attention, but consider the ramifications. It could weaken or distort the rest of your message. Try to put yourself in your audience's place; think about first impressions. Are you setting the right tone for your message?

Promote trust. People generally don't listen to those they don't trust. And if they do, they're likely to misconstrue the message. So how do you build trust with your audience, especially if you don't really know them?

The first step is to try to identify with them. Connect to common interests, experiences, concerns. Since my target audience for this blog are those in the A/E industry where I've spent 37 years, it's fairly easy to identify with them. Furthermore, if I'm writing to managers, I often refer to my experiences as a manager. If to marketers, I'll draw on my time as a marketer. And so on. Identification communicates that you understand where your audience is coming from.

It's also important to convey that you care about your audience. Showing genuine concern is probably the fastest way to build trust. How do you show you care? By showing empathy, speaking to audience concerns, using personal language, being respectful. That last suggestion is just plain common sense, but it's less common these days, especially with people we disagree with. But you'll never persuade anyone who doesn't think you respect them.

Don't ignore the emotional context. This tip was implicit in the two previous bullets; let me make it explicit here. Emotions can profoundly influence communication. Yet many communicators--and yes, this is true of technical professionals--are often oblivious to the emotional context of their messages.

This cuts both ways. Your emotions can substantially shape your message. Your audience's emotions affect how your message is interpreted and received. Pay attention to both dynamics. If you write or speak when angry, for example, expect an angry response. If you're critical, expect a defensive response. On the other hand, people tend to respond favorably to someone who is friendly, upbeat, humble, respectful.

Of course, there may be times when you want to portray that you're angry, frustrated, anxious, etc. Just do so intentionally with a sensitivity to how it's likely to impact your audience. Don't be in the dark about the role that feelings play in communication.

Use a common, personal language. The technical professions have developed distinct terminologies. In one sense, these words clarify and specify; in another they exclude. Sometimes I think the exclusion is intentional; perhaps to accentuate our expertise. But it often impedes our communication. So the advice is to avoid the unnecessary use of jargon.

But speaking a common language is not simply about avoiding certain words. It also includes adopting words--and ways of putting words together--that connect with your audience. Among professionals, there is a tendency to write, and sometimes even speak, in a stuffy impersonal tone. Remember the caution about evoking emotions? This style of communication can deaden them. That's not an effective way to connect with your audience.

Impersonal communication is particularly inappropriate when attempting to persuade. Technical professionals sometimes underestimate how prevalent the persuasive process is in their jobs. You have to persuade someone every day. And you should recognize that persuasion is largely driven by emotions like passion, trust, comfort, confidence.

So don't drain the emotion or personal connection from your persuasive messages. Use first and second person, write and speak in a conversational tone, and don't be afraid to address what people are likely thinking and feeling. Technical solutions are valuable only to the degree that they address human needs. So your communication about technical matters shouldn't be devoid of humanity.

Invite dialogue. One-way communication is risky. Without feedback, you don't know how well your message was received. Did your audience understand you? Did they agree or disagree? Did they even care? You always want to try to get some response so you can gauge the success of your communication.

When speaking to an audience, the opportunity for dialogue is obvious. Or is it? How many one-way presentations do we make without engaging a conversation? How often do we give instructions or provide information to colleagues without confirming the message was received? This lack of dialogue can create a host of problems, from misunderstandings to missed opportunities.

When writing, audience feedback is no less valuable, if less convenient. Use whatever means are available to solicit input from those receiving your written messages. Better still, engage dialogue before writing when you can.

This is particularly important when there is a disagreement or conflict with the recipient. Some people like to collect their thoughts in writing rather than talk to the other party in such situations. But dialogue is usually better. If controlling emotions is a concern, invite an impartial third party to facilitate the conversation. Then, when appropriate, summarize in writing what you discussed.

Confirming successful reception of your message is an important, yet often overlooked, aspect of effective communication. Engage dialogue (see this earlier post related to presentations). Invite feedback. Confirm meeting or conversation outcomes in writing. Of course, your comments are always appreciated here. How else do I know if I'm communicating?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Social Media: Beyond the Hype

The frenzy over social media has been fascinating. It seems to dominate virtually every conversation about marketing. But is it overhyped?

Clearly it's helped companies expand their marketing bandwidth. But what about bottom-line results? That's the one aspect of social media that doesn't seem to be getting a lot of attention, at least with regards to our profession. I think I know why.

For one thing, most A/E firms have never been inclined to measure marketing results. The reason I hear most often is the difficulty in linking marketing activities with tangible outcomes. No doubt that can be challenging, but low expectations probably also come into play. Firms don't expect tangible outcomes from marketing, so why bother trying to measure them?

Most firms do track marketing activity, and social media can amp up the activity meter. That's where I suspect much of the excitement comes from. When you read about the phenomenal growth of sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, it's hard not to get excited about the potential for reaching a lot of people.

And in that sense, I suggest that social media is much like trade shows a decade or two ago. We set up our exhibit booth and waited expectantly as hundreds strolled past. Several, in fact, stopped to talk with us. We left enthused because we had engaged in more conservations with potential clients in two days than two months of sales calls could have produced.

But the shortcomings with trade shows were much the same as they are with social media. You see, most firms failed to do the hard work to turn those conversations into sales. And most firms will fail to do the hard work to make social media actually generate new business. But enthusiasm will run high, at least for a while, because of all the connections (the modern substitute for conversations) being made.

Come to think of it, the lack of conversation is one of the primary reservations I have about social media. There are many online forums for posting questions, sharing insights, and meeting new people. But folks in our industry don't appear to be using them much.

Take LinkedIn, for example. There are many groups there related to our business, but little discussion associated with them. Among the several groups I have joined, I would expect members of the Society for Marketing Professional Services group, in particular, to be talking to each other. But there are only 17 discussions currently listed, some posted months ago, and a relatively small number of people who have provided most of the posts and comments. This is a group with 1,893 members.

I checked several A/E firm Facebook pages and found a similar trend. While some have attracted an admirable number of "fans," the back-and-back forth postings generally don't come close to that seen on the average personal profile. Twitter, of course, is not the best site for conversation. It seems largely ignored by A/E firms anyway (although there are many individuals from our industry posting there).

While admittedly only a cursory review, I've seen nothing to make me think that social media will displace face-to-face networking any time soon. Networking involves conversation, not just connecting. But what about social media for supporting other marketing activities? A few key questions come to mind:
  • Are clients using social media in significant numbers?
  • Where will you get content to support your social media activities?
  • Is your firm prepared to make the necessary investment of time?
  • What specific objectives do you have in mind?
Let's consider each of those questions:

Are clients--specifically decision makers--using social media?
You can certainly raise your firm's visibility with social media, but are you reaching the right audience? That's the question that has dogged me and I've yet to find the definitive answer. I will say that I've personally found little evidence that executive decision makers are using social media in significant numbers. When I've asked my own clients--typically CEOs and principals--the usual answer I get is, "I don't have time for that."

I've pored over several studies of internet use by B2B buyers, but I've not been able to connect these data to our own business. One trend is clear: The use of social media by B2B marketers has exploded in recent years. One study found that B2B use has actually surpassed that of B2C marketing, although social media is arguably better suited for the latter. I assume that means it's working for B2B enterprises? Again, that angle is less clear.

Another data point you should know: One survey found that 54% of companies prohibit the use of social networking sites for any purpose by their employees during work. That number is likely to increase as use of social media while on the job grows (according to another study). So will the exponential growth of B2B marketing through social media continue? Or is there another reality lurking beneath the surface?

Where will you get content to support your social media marketing? Not long ago, content marketing was the rage among professional service firms. Except in the A/E business, where most firms generate little in the way of articles, white papers, webinars, videos, podcasts, etc. Why did we bypass the last wave--the efficacy of which is better demonstrated in the research--only to jump enthusiastically on this one?

I suspect it's a matter of convenience. It's easier for marketers to create a presence on social networking sites than to try to extract useful content from their technical colleagues. Yet we need to recognize that content marketing hasn't gone away; it has spread to the internet and social media.

A recent study by looked at business usage of social media and confirmed that content is still king. The most common business uses for social media were: attending webinars, listening to podcasts, reading user ratings and reviews, subscribing to feeds from business information and news sites, reading articles and blog posts, and searching for business information.

With so many firms staking a claim on social networking sites, the question you should ask is: Why should folks pay attention to us? It's obvious that good content is the key. It doesn't necessarily have to be your own (although I strongly recommend creating some of your own content). You can link to others' content if your cupboard is bare. But that still takes time finding it, which leads to the next question.

Are you prepared to commit the necessary time and resources? A little more marketing is certainly better than a little less. So if you find social media a convenient and efficient way to broaden your marketing efforts a little bit, so be it. But if you want to have some real impact, it's going to require substantial effort. How much is it worth?

I confess to being only a casual user of social media (oops, there goes my credibility). I dabble in LinkedIn and Twitter, and only recently created a Facebook business page. Of course, I blog. I follow what others are doing, leave comments, exchange occasional emails with my peers. As a sole proprietor, I have limited time for marketing. I don't engage social media more because I'm not fully convinced yet that it's worth more of my time. Maybe it's a chicken-and-egg sort of thing.

But I'm still much more active online than most of my clients, including some rather large firms with substantial marketing resources. The big difference? I have content and use social media primarily to distribute it. So what's your plan? Dabble or dunk? The important thing is that you align your level of activity with your expectations. Social media hasn't made effective marketing any easier; it still takes a substantial commitment to do it right.

What specific objectives do you have in mind? Marketing needs to be more than enriching the atmosphere with positive vibes about your firm. It should deliver tangible, measurable results. The truest test that marketing is working is when clients are contacting you in response. So surely you should be tracking who contacts you through your social media marketing efforts. Even better, how many sales does it lead to?

But I'm also an advocate for tracking leading indicators, results that you can reasonably expect will eventually deliver to the bottom line. Some leading metrics to consider:
  • Google PageRank
  • Traffic (visitors, followers, fans, etc.)
  • Interactions (comments, discussions, messages)
  • Mentions (use Google Alerts to track when your firm's name is mentioned on the web)
Obviously, your objectives and level of effort go hand in hand. That's why it's important to weigh both together. Many firms have dived into social media without clear objectives in mind. So how then do they measure success?

Regardless of the size of your marketing budget or staff, you have limits just like I do. Ideally, you're allocating those resources to the best possible use, to the best of your ability. Where does social media fit into that equation and how much of your resources does it deserve? That I can't answer. I can only hope to ask the right questions.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Time Management Together

So why haven't you completed the tasks assigned to you in the last planning meeting? Or developed the new QA/QC guidelines that you agreed to do? Or made those sales calls you promised? Or spent more time mentoring the coworker who asked for your help?

Let me guess: You haven't had the time. Isn't that the usual reason we offer for not getting those important (but perhaps not so urgent) tasks done? I wonder how many missed opportunities and how much unrealized potential we and our firms have suffered for the lack of available time. For the average manager, the time crisis is probably the toughest challenge we face.

Recognizing that, most of us have attempted to employ some time management strategies. Maybe we've read a few books on the subject or attended a seminar or two. With diligence, some of us have experienced a little improvement. But the time crisis persists.

Why? To be honest, the biggest problem usually is the other people who we work for (clients and bosses) and who work for us. They regularly interrupt us, alter our task lists, and jumble our priorities. Some of us try to escape the distractions by occasionally working at home, working nights and weekends, or hiding out in a conference room. But these are less than satisfactory solutions.

Like any other problem that involves other people, the best way to tackle the issue is to do it together. Indeed, in my experience the most effective way to maximize your time usage is to do it jointly with those you work with. Here are some approaches I have found effective:

Define your goals and priorities. Time management is like most other objectives; there is more to do than you have time time to do it. So you should start by identifying what changes are likely to yield the greatest benefits. Here are some possible areas of focus:
  • Planning work better
  • Creating more efficient work processes
  • Increasing proactive communication
  • Managing interruptions
  • Preserving blocks of time for tasks
  • Maximizing the return on nonbillable time
  • Getting better organized
  • Optimizing meetings
  • Providing time management training
Pick no more than 3-4 primary goals for your time management initiative, at least in the early stages. Your collective goals and priorities shape the framework for developing group time management strategies.

Inventory current time usage and interruptions. Do this before you finalize your list of goals and priorities because it will reveal where many of your problems lie. Set aside two weeks for this step. For the first week, have everyone in your office, department, or team track in 30-minute increments how they spend their time at work. One of the main benefits of this is to demonstrate how fragmented your time usage tends to be (especially for managers).

The first time I did this, I learned to my astonishment that only once during the week did I work on any single task for more than one hour. Of course, it's hard to be very productive when you spend your time that way. So one likely goal to emerge from this exercise is to take steps to help people better "block" their time on specific tasks.

For the second week, ask everyone to keep track of interruptions. This would include unscheduled phone calls, walk-ins, and impromptu meetings. There is obviously a connection between interruptions and your inability to block time. But perhaps the greatest value of this exercise is raising awareness about interruptions. When you walk into someone's office and they pull out their tracking sheet and write you up, you begin to think: Did I really need to interrupt this person?

For both of the above activities, you can download tracking sheets from the "Consultant's Toolbox" page of my website.

Establish "office hours." One way to control interruptions is to establish a few hours each day when only urgent interruptions are allowed. This could be done by setting a time period for everyone in the group or allowing each person to set their own. Setting office hours typically should be left optional, but respecting them should be expected of everyone. Of course, it will be difficult if not impossible to set office hours for some individuals (e.g., administrative staff). But this should not deter you from considering it for the others.

This tactic can be approached more informally. When I was an operations manager, I encouraged my staff to set office hours if they wanted and many did. I did not, but made arrangements with the two people who interrupted me most (my administrative office manager and my boss) to try to limit nonurgent discussions to a period of time late in the day. This made a tremendous difference in my efforts to better block my time for important tasks.

Make appointments for important tasks and communicate them to others. The important tasks on your to-do list are routinely usurped by more urgent--and often less important--matters. But appointments you make are much less prone to being pushed aside. So let me recommend that you make appointments with yourself for all important but nonurgent tasks. Don't simply add them to your list; block out specific periods of time.

In most offices, employees have access to their coworkers' calendars through programs like Outlook or Lotus Notes. This means that the appointments you make for important tasks will show up there and discourage others from scheduling you for other things during those times. If you don't have access to this feature, I would urge you to develop some other way of communicating appointments to each other. Even posting calendars on office doors is better than nothing.

Establish policies and guidelines for meetings. Meetings share a dual honor: They are both the biggest time wasters and the biggest time savers in your office. The difference is how you define which meetings are necessary and how well you manage them. In most of the firms I work with, I find there are too many management meetings and too few project meetings. An effective meeting should ultimately save time through better planning and communication. Of course, even an appropriately called meeting can waste time because it is poorly planned and managed.

With rare exceptions, all meetings should have an agenda published in advance and a facilitator assigned. There is both a skill and an art to facilitating meetings, and relatively few excel at it. It's a good idea to bring in one of your best facilitators for more important meetings, even if that individual otherwise wouldn't have a role in it. Or consider hiring an outside facilitator for key meetings. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that the person "in charge of" the meeting content (e.g, a project manager for a project meeting) is necessarily the best person to be in charge of the meeting itself.

For most firms, improving meetings should rank high on their list of group time management priorities.

Make sure managers properly invest their time in others. All managers should be familiar with the Time Investment Principle. That is, the best way for a manager to improve his or her productivity is to focus first on helping others be more productive. This is inherent in the common definition of the word "manager"--one responsible for getting results through the efforts of others. By spending time helping others do their job better, the manager multiplies his or her productivity. Unfortunately, too many managers focus first on their own to-do list, neglecting their duty to spend adequate time instructing, encouraging, and monitoring others.

One of the best ways to ensure that you appropriately invest time in others is to try to start each day meeting with those on your team or in your work group. Do this before you sit down at your desk and succumb to the demands of the paperwork, email, and phone messages awaiting you there. Make sure that those working for you are adequately prepared to make the most of their time that day, before you begin to tackle your personal tasks.

Of course, the Time Investment Principle involves being available and helping staff throughout the day. But the suggestion is doing this more proactively than reactively. It yields better results and reduces unnecessary interruptions.

Involve your clients. You may be thinking: These suggestions sound good, but clients are a big part of the problem in effectively managing our time. So why not ask for their cooperation? Don't they also have a stake in your success in getting the most from your time? Let them know about your office's or team's efforts to better utilize your time and improve productivity.

Suggest ways that they can help, such as calling you or your coworkers at certain times of the day. Offer to take responsibility for meetings involving the client, so you can see that an agenda is prepared and a competent facilitator is assigned. Actively engage clients in planning the work, mutually establishing expectations and defining critical junctures in the schedule. Communicate proactively with your clients, so that surprises and untimely interruptions are minimized.

Who knows, your efforts to maximize the use of both your firm's and your client's time may prove to be one of the most significant ways you add value for the client.