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this column first appeared in the January 5th issue of PRNews

The Chinese market is innovating in ways different than what we are used to in the west. Where we see boundaries, entrepreneurs in China envision new ways to combine social media and ecommerce. What I’ve discovered is that “geographic learning” is part of how we build an edge in our home market. Often, the best ideas for what’s next are happening thousands of miles away. This article will describe key lessons learned from China that can be applied to how we communicate in western markets in the years ahead.

1. Focus on one consistent customer experience. In China, ecommerce companies like Alibaba integrate social media fully into their sales experience. They don’t divide social media and sales and they don’t place as high a premium on advertising. Where we see a divide in how things should work (social media and ecommerce), the Chinese find an opportunity to create one continual customer experience.

2. ROI is easier to answer. When you tie social media and ecommerce, it’s the same customer, so we know his/her purchasing power. Chinese companies don’t have to waste time asking ‘How do you know social media will lead to ROI?’ The more directly we work with our customers, the more we know about them. The more we advertise to them from afar, the less we know. The latter way being much more expensive and less productive.

3. An involved customer is a productive customer. When you interact with customers in a repeatable and trustworthy manner, a breakthrough occurs in the relationship between company and customer. In China, because social media and ecommerce are one in the same, consumers will ask their peers for advice more frequently and provide advice to companies more often.

4. Customer experience refers to positive outcomes. Normally we think of customer experience as how to deal with negative situations.

In China, it’s the opposite. Improving customer experience means more integration of reviews into sites, more forum conversations, more content created on new products, more advice amongst peers on what to buy.

5. Education trumps advertising. New customers don’t know much, if anything, about a brand they discover online. In China, a premium is placed on educating the consumer by directly involving the customer in the purchase.

The company and the community are there to share advice, discuss new options and teach each other. With a rising middle class, this was imperative, but it reinforces the most simple brand-building lessons.

6. Social platform features will match customer need. We think of social platforms doing one thing well, whether it is photos ( Instagram) or Twitter (140 characters) or Foursquare (location).

Does this make sense? In China, firms combine whatever they believe the customer will want into one platform. For example, WeChat has features similar to Instagram (post photos), Foursquare (find people near you) and instant messaging.

Youku has shades of Netflix and YouTubeSina Weibo allows you to act like we do on Twitter and post as we do on Facebook. This makes sense.

7. Instant messaging will lead to new platforms. IM is one of the fastest-growing aspects of social media in China. WeChat and QQ, both owned by Tencent, are two of the largest instant messaging companies. WeChat enables the user to talk live, share images, use geo-location apps and more.

Could the next platform emerge from IM? What does that mean for how we share content in the U.S.? It’s an obvious trend in a mobile-first world. Overall, the lessons from China are those we talk about a lot in the western world, but often we are held back by our habits. There is no magic bullet.

Rather, there is an opportunity for brands to become more involved in the full customer experience, so that we break down our artificial walls of “sales” versus “marketing” versus “communications.”

Our customers don’t think like this and perhaps, based on what we see in China, we are getting an early glimpse into how our online world will evolve in the years ahead.

The Sidebar

Being Conversant in China

As I study how China is evolving, I’m continually thinking of what we, as communicators, can do differently. Here are the ten most important items on my mind for 2015.

1. Identify your communities for your brand. How many communities do you have where they talk about your brand? What do you do to interact with them? What content do you provide to them? If you don’t have any, how will you get them started?

2. Know your customers…really. We should know exactly who has influence online for our brand, exactly who is providing reviews, exactly who is creating great educational content and more. You should have a list of more than 1,000 people where you know their name, what they do for your brand and what you will do for them.

3. Take instant messaging more seriously. How will you provide content that can be easily shared via IM? What will you do with services like Snap Chat that are redefining what an IM means for entertainment purposes?

4. Work closely with Marketing & Sales. It’s time we have one set of metrics to measure how social media and sales work together. China is teaching us the importance of this every day.

5. Measure how often your team interacts with customers. Develop metrics to understand how often you and your team actually interact with customers online and how often the rest of your company does this on a daily basis. Do you do it? If so, how do you know what is working? If not, what is holding you back?

6. Build your second sales force. Obsess over providing your most important online customers whatever they need to be successful in educating their community, which is really your shared community. What is your content plan to provide a regular flow of information to your customers? Is any of this based on their direct feedback?

7. Remember what all customers want to do online. Anywhere in the world, we have three primal desires online—to share ideas, knowledge or solutions to educate our peers. How are you doing this? Are you enabling your customers or are you talking at them?

8. Think of the entire customer experience, not just a single channel experience. Customers travel from channel to channel to learn. We may go from Facebook to Twitter to Search in minutes to learn on the same topic. Take the time to understand what the journey is for your key customers. Don’t focus on one channel at the expense of learning about the path they take.

9. Remember that education trumps advertising. We are all customers and we all want to learn about the brands that we care most about. Remember to teach. Earned media is the perfect way to do this well. Paid media is really meant to accelerate the work of earned in the new world.

10. Keep an eye on what doesn’t work as well. Not everything in China turns to gold. Look at what fails as well. Why did it? Equally instructive for all of us.

And it probably wouldn’t hurt to learn a few words of Chinese. Zài jiàn. —B.P.

This article originally appeared in the January 5, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that takes place every January in Las Vegas is always equal parts amazing, informative and overwhelming. Many of the top CEOs and CMOs of the biggest companies in the world show up to speak, network, learn and do deals. As a result, thousands of start-ups, agency people, journalists and influencers show up to “fish where the fish” are. This year alone saw 170,000 industry professionals with 3,600 exhibitors on 2.2 million square feet of exhibition space.

DKirkpatrick

With so any voices and hundreds of different events happening from 7:00 in the morning until 4:00 AM Sunday through Friday, it’s hard to keep up with the fire hose of information. To that end, we at W2O Group have found sometimes holding smaller, focused, events during bigger events like CES, Mobile World Congress and SXSW helps our clients, partners and company leaders learn, discuss and synthesize key trends being discussed at these giant conferences. CES 2015 was no exception as our company partnered with one of the brightest minds in the Tech industry, David Kirkpatrick, and his company, Techonomy, to hold a private meeting with ten clients/friends of W2O last Wednesday, January 7, 2015.

At the round table event, David kicked us off by sharing observations from trends he covered as a journalist at Techonomy combined with insights gleaned from several of the talks he conducted at CES. This included a Keynote panel David led the day before with Cisco CEO, John Chambers, Comcast CEO and President, Neil Smit and Bosch Chairman, Werner Struth, Bosch.

David’s talk featured a few key themes including the concept of the “end of industries” or the diminishing of bright lines where they previously existed; the shift of power from the center to the edges that players like Facebook are facilitating; companies’ increasing obsession with innovation; and an increasing dominance of China as a player in the tech world. One of the boldest statements during David’s discussion came from his keynote panel the prior day where John Chambers claimed that “in 10 years it’s predicted that 40% of the Fortune500 companies will no longer exist.” Chambers — and Kirkpatrick’s points were, you must disrupt to survive.

While we didn’t record our session in order to offer a free flowing discussion among the senior level brands that attended, I did take copious notes during David’s talk. You will see that they roll up to some of the high level concepts I’ve called out out above:

  • Industries are converging e.g. Technology and Health. You can find a company like Celera (biotech) and Autodesk (software) are both mapping the human genome. Increasingly, companies will find non-traditional competitors (and partners) in their own backyards.
  • Every company is a software company. David cited a recent post by NY Times writer, Farhad Manjoo, that talked about the need for companies to focus on software vs hardware (ironic given the dominance of hardware on display at CES).
  •  One of the oddities of CES is that it doesn’t feature smart phones — Mobile World Congress is where that conversation happens. Key trends that David noted from this year’s CES including the Internet of Things (IoT). David reinforced that IoT is a fascinating and important trend (including wearables).
    • IoT – will literally connect everything in life (stomach to airport control tower)
    • Unilever has 2 billion users – how can they use a product that has text on it that people pick up every day. Could they become a communications company? David said that sensors will get cheap enough to put on every product down the road.
  • The companies that have the longest histories are the ones that can mutate themselves the fastest. They have learned over time how to mutate themselves. Small group of dinosaurs that are “built to last.” Getting harder for even the good companies to evolve.
  • 2014 is being called “the year people stood up.” Hong Kong, Mexico and Ukraine and Burkina Faso – all of which had people rise up using social media (all countries where Facebook is super strong).
  • More on companies obsession with innovation:
    • If you go to any city with over 300,000 people in the world – you will find a startup neighborhood with an incubator, VCs etc. The number of opportunities emerging is incredible and threat to incumbents.
    • Trends: starting internal incubators (Samsung), partnering with companies (Tech Stars), coming together with industries (fashion) and companies are coming together to co-innovate.
    • There is a company in NYC called Bionic. Their job is to help big companies innovate.
    • Companies like GE are working to adopt a startup mentality and focusing on an imperative for speed (more here from David’s interview with Beth Comstock).
    • Numerous companies are creating innovation centers in Silicon Valley.
  • On China
    • China can’t be talked about enough. Two poles of tech innovation in the future – China and US. Important to keep an eye on Chinese social media/ecommerce sites like Alibaba, Tencent (just opened a bank), Baidu. They are the next “Apple, Google, Facebooks.”
    • PRC has extraordinary support from the government although their lack of diversity hurts them (US as an example has drawn on attracting some of the brightest minds in the world over the past few centuries — China has been relatively insular).
    • They are innovating through copying. The more they copy other countries/companies products, the better they get at making faster, cheaper and more innovative alternatives.

Following David’s talk, we had a 20 minute Q&A where leaders from the automotive, telecommunications, financial services and other industries drilled down on some of David’s talking points. This led to more thought provoking concepts:

  • Uber/AirBnB – neither of these companies are in the industry they operate in (both are marketplaces vs. a taxi or hotel). AirBnB is already doing restaurants. Ability to tap into the capacity of society. The more of these platforms that emerge, the more people can make money.
  • David worries that the pace of change today puts people in jeopardy more so than in any other generation.
  • For some large companies, people aren’t just interested in the job (good or bad) their front line employees like technicians do, but rather the role they play in the community the company serves.
  • The Dollar Shave Club was cited as a company that is truly disrupting the shaving industry. Their product may or may not be better, but their delivery model is significantly different than that of P&G or Unilever.
  • David’s take on IoT: someone needs to come along and organize IoT (David thinks Google is in the best position to do this). We probably need the government to come in and provide regulations that facilitate someone like Google curating their data.
  • You can go into your Google Maps and see everywhere you’ve ever been as long as you have sensor turned on. If it’s not turned on, you can’t use services like maps.
  • Privacy is a cultural thing (not nearly as big a deal as in Asia as it is in US).
  • Right now, China is growing at 7% and are crying (we would kill to grow at 7%). It helps to have 1.3 billion people/test market (closed).
  • In China – company knows well enough how to unfairly advantage its own businesses (US doesn’t according to David).

Last but not least, W2O President, Bob Pearson walked through 12 thought provoking trends (technology and marketing) with the group that facilitated some fascinating discussion. Bob’s deck is embedded below via Slideshare.

All in all, a thought provoking day building on some thought provoking time spent at CES. Have additional questions based on what you read? Let me know and I can elaborate or can reach out to David to get more information.

When you reach a key milestone, it’s worth a moment to explain its significance.

Today, W2O Group, formed in January, 2012, hired a new president of WCG Chris Deri, who joins us from Burson, where he led their team in China. We’re thrilled, both for what it means to our clients and to our team inside WCG (Chris’s words on what this means can be found here).

For our clients, the drivers are very clear.

We are being asked to build an increasingly global agency that can provide strategic direction and insights for many of the world’s leading brands. We’ll do that in our own way. We believe that ideas and insights are borderless. The result is we need experts who understand 20+ languages and cultures around the world on our team. It is less relevant where they sit.

The C-Suite is in great need of innovation, ranging from how reputation is measured to how trust is built to how a reputation is earned, over time, whether it is for a company or an individual. Crisis and issues management are due for an overhaul in our industry. Public Affairs is still using many old school techniques with decreasing effect. The C-Suite, as it relates to our business, is due for a long-needed overhaul and we’re in the process of making that happen via our analytics, digital and corporate teams working together in unique ways. Our R&D pipeline is filled to the brim with client-driven, innovative ideas.

If we are going to be the best in health, technology, consumer and public affairs, we must be excellent at the above two areas. WCG is about to turn both into towering strengths.

Within WCG, this is an important step for us to let someone else lead WCG. It’s that simple, yet it’s meaning is far more important. When entrepreneurs are willing to let go, even if it is not all the way, it allows a firm to expand in new ways and set an even stronger course.
We’ve looked for someone like Chris for awhile who will unlock the amazing talent we have in our firm. Someone who will attract new and different entrepreneurs to our firm. Someone who leads with a people first attitude every day.

Our role is to serve Chris and his team. We’ll help them innovate, mentor talent and ensure resources are there for WCG to lead the way. We look at it as 1+1 =3, by letting the next generation form at WCG.

We welcome Chris and look forward to a great future for the entire WCG team.

Jim & Bob

 

As the world nears the magic number of 2 billion people online (now 1.966 billion), I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit the importance of language.  Said another way, if you work for a global company and you want to reach all of your customers online, it may be time to strengthen the language capabilities of your team.

Today, the top ten languages in the world reach 82.6 percent of people online (1.6 billion).  English is the leading language of the world with 536 million people online, according to InternetWorldStats.  China is second with 444 million. It’s not a surprise that English is leading, since approximately 53 countries have English as one of their official languages.  As an fyi, these stats are created when one language is assigned to each person.  They do not account for all languages that a given person speaks.  I know, I know…..but that data doesn’t exist today….we work with what we’ve got.

The top ten are English (536 million); Chinese/Mandarin (444); Spanish (153); Japan (99); Portugese (82); German (75); Arabic (65); French (59); Russian (59); and Korean (39).   Overall, 4.4 billion people of our 6.8 billion citizens of the world, speak these languages, so penetration is still low for the top 10.   In fact, when you look worldwide, the two highest volume languages have low penetration rates, e.g. English at 42 percent and Chinese/Mandarin at 32.6 percent.  This is in contrast to Japanese at 78.2 percent and German at 78.6 percent.

As languages take on increasing importance, it will be critical for companies to think in terms of building their own Global Highway which contains individual language networks.   For example, for Chinese/Mandarin, the network includes people in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao.  For German, it includes Germany, Austria, Liechentstein, Luxembourg and Switzerland.  And for Spanish, we have 21 countries where Spanish is the main language.  Increasingly, language will slowly erode the geographic boundaries, in terms of information sharing.  I fully expect culture to remain important locally for country-specific conversations and decisions, but for broader based information, language will often lead in the future.  Think of your compay’s main story…..that’s broad-based.

In the years ahead, today’s global company will be able to describe what their Global Highway looks like, in terms of how they reach their customers across language and how they differentiate between content and conversations that should reach a language network and those that should be focused purely on a local level.  Suffice it to say that we are in the midst of building out these types of “new roads” and triggers.

The only difference in how we will build online roads is that you won’t see 3-4 of us hanging out on the side of the road holding a sign and having a break. There’s way too much work to do.

All the best, Bob

As published in the O’Dwyer’s PR Report September, 2009 issue

It’s called social media for a good reason.  Never have we had a better opportunity to listen, learn and speak directly with our customers, and what this new phenomenon really represents is an amazing opportunity to build a more valuable relationship with the people we serve.

As a result, the communications profession is going through its most intense transformation in decades.  In the period that follows, the followers will remain “communicators” and the leaders will become “conversation architects”.  Here’s why.

The sheer size of this change is mind-boggling.  Approximately 500,000 people go online everyday for the first time in their lives.  Moreover, the location and habits of our audiences are changing, particularly in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.  China is now the leading online country by a wide margin over the United States.

Facebook is the community of choice and is now equal in size to Indonesia, which has the fourth largest population in the world.  YouTube is now the third largest search engine.

Consumers are in the driver’s seat.  Using social media, customers decide how they will  receive information and where and when they will review a product before buying it.  Before making key purchasing decisions, three out of four customers ask their peers for advice.  The age of self-sufficiency is emerging.

Smart communicators already see this change and the opportunity it represents.  This is where I draw the line between a conversation architect and a communicator.

Communicators often share content they have expertly prepared in the hope that coverage will somehow lead to good things.  It might; but increasingly, it might not.

Conversation architects understand how to enter the conversation with their customer and become a valuable partner to share ideas, product knowledge and solutions, and empower that customer to share the story.

The conversation architect realizes that the following trends are important.

Customers are actually co-shaping the reputation of our brands without us.   As a result, companies need to become part of the discussion to influence the reputation of those brands.  In other words, we have to actually participate or we are unwittingly outsourcing the reputation of our brand.  Companies such as Radian6 and Visible Technologies are helping communicators identify, with precision, who is talking about their company.

It’s possible to identify issues before they become highly public via strong online monitoring.  Communicators are trained to deal with an issue once it hits the press.  Conversation architects, on the other hand, realize they can see trends earlier and plan, sometimes weeks in advance, for the same issue.

Customers are part of their own “liquid network”. This means that they are loyal to the content they want and they will morph their habits to find what they need.  It’s subtle.   The shifts are like an ocean’s currents.  Communicators believe they can plan for the year against a set list of influencers.  Conversation architects know that influencers shift with time and they watch it happen in real time.   This is why being part of the community is so important.  Intuit is a perfect example of a company that participates with its customers in their communities of choice.  Microsoft does a terrific job of reaching developers via www.channel9.msdn.com.

Customers spend less than one percent of their lifetime purchasing products online.  The real influence occurs during browsing and socialization.  Conversation architects know where their customers go to learn before purchase.  Communicators try to drive traffic to a transactional site.  Conversation architects introduce themselves to their customers in social environments, ensure their reviews and related product content are ready for browsing and do a great job in the transactional space.  They see the big picture.  Here is an easy test for you  Think of your web site traffic and then remember that 1.6 billion people are online.  How many visit your site each day?

Customers like to do three thing as long as it helps their peers: share ideas, share product knowledge and share solutions.  Customers don’t care about your company, they care about their community.  Communicators try to convince them to take actions they want them to take.  Conversation architects empower customers to share their expertise with their peers.

How we are consuming content is changing.  YouTube, for example, is becoming a key location for learning.  Communicators create slick videos to tell their story.  Conversation architects provide a combination of their story, customer’s insights and how to’s geared to what people want to learn about online.

The media world isn’t changing, it has already fundamentally changed.  Bloggers often drive as much or more share of conversation online as reporters.  Communicators resist this change.  Conversation architects focus on who drives their share of conversation, regardless of the outlet.  Two great examples of this are Pfizer’s presence on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pfizer_news and GE’s approach to sharing its news via GE Reports at www.gereports.com. Note: Pfizer is a WeissComm client.

Finally, we know that ethical behavior is key to maintaining trust.  Nothing has changed.  There are no short cuts to success in social media.  Flogs, splogs or sponsored conversations are not the answer.  Real conversations with real customers provide value.  That is what works.

  1. It’s a great time to be in the communications profession – a time when we can all participate in reshaping the importance of our jobs to build value for our clients and their brands.

Bob Pearson, Chief Technology & Media Officer, WeissComm Group and President, Social Media Business Council