Sunday, January 18, 2009

No Comment

One might wonder why an organization would choose to use a blog as a communication tool if, as in the case of Federated Media's Blog, the organization doesn't allow comments. To be clear, at the bottom of each post there is a form for submitting comments. But one glance at the home page shows that submitted comments do not move from moderation to publication.

Sure, lots of blogs out there have no comments -- my blog in fact has very few. The number of people who choose to comment after all is relatively small by comparison to the total number of readers, and there has to be something to say. John Battelle was, for example, kind enough to comment on my blog when I published a compliment of his Web 2.0 Summit. But what else would anyone have to say to that post?

On the other hand, if you claim, as John has in his "Change and Opportunity" post about a 10% staff reduction at Federated Media, that your company has
...completely reinvented the concept of what "marketing" could be.
you might expect a few people to want to comment. And if you are going to claim that you
...helped define the practice of what we call "conversational marketing."
then you probably owe the market a real conversation. But maybe this blog post shows exactly what is wrong with the definition John has been using for "conversational marketing" -- too much marketing and no conversations.

Totally Transparent Layoffs

Tony Hsieh has certainly set the bar for transparency quite high in his blog post about Zappos layoffs back in November. Crain Communications' Workforce Management magazine wrote about that act of courage, "Social Media Begins Forcing the Totally Transparent Layoff." In this article author Ed Frauenheim quotes Libby Sartain, former head of human resources for Yahoo, saying
“People tweet, people blog, people text,” Sartain said. “You are going to have a completely transparent workplace at all times. You can’t really spin it.”
The blog post that Tony did has pages of comments from engaged customers, past employees, and industry observers. One past employee writes
Tony Hsieh and Alfred Lin are some of the insightful, kind, and compassionate corporate executives that I have ever had the privileged of working under.
Now that is a company people will want to work for, even if it (like all companies) will sometimes have to layoff employees.

The Case for Transparency

Done right, transparency can be a powerful tool for a company to communicate its core values and, even in a difficult time, build a positive impression of the company in the larger marketplace. So what was wrong with John's blog post? Let's start with the title - it wasn't about respecting the people who were being shown the door, it wasn't about telling the marketplace that Federated treats its employees, even in bad times, with honor and respect. It was instead a marketing pitch for Federated. From the title of the post -- "Change and Opportunity" -- and on throughout the post John writes about FM and not about the people who are now without work.

Secondly the post didn't communicate to customers, in this case the sites which Federated represents, what will happen to them. Will it take longer to get a report? Will fewer ads be sold? Will some sites be cut? An important customer, Michael Arrington, claims he read about the changes on their blog. Certainly in both communicating to employees and to customers a blog post does not replace private communications (in which FM was undoubtedly also engaged). But transparent communications can help bridge the communications gap and make sure that the company's point of view is made clear.

And transparency has the additional benefit of speaking to the much larger audience of potential customers and potential employees to tell the company's story and show what the company stands for and believes in, demonstrating how it treats its stakeholders through good times and bad.

Advertising vs. Conversations

For me the most interesting aspect of this story is the one which appears to have been the most mangled in the way in which it was communicated (and reported). Paid Content reported the news with the headline "Federated Media Shifts Away From Display Ads" which is probably not the lede that John was hoping for. According to Chas Edwards, quoted in this article, Federated had over $39 million in revenues in 2008. One would guess that most of this is from "dumb display advertising" as Edwards calls it, hoping perhaps that his dumb advertisers don't notice how dumb he thinks they are for giving him their money.

But I think Federated Media does have a great opportunity to lead the industry in a fundamental change and that John Battelle could be a great spokesperson for doing marketing in an entirely different way. As Joseph Pine tells us in his latest book, what we really crave is authenticity from the companies with whom we do business. In my view "conversational marketing" is about being transparent and being authentic - having a real, open, interactive conversation with others in the marketplace, treating them as peers.

But if FM is going to be a leader, they will have to start by being a good example themselves.

3 comments:

cv said...

Hi Ted-

I agree with you that it doesn't count as conversation unless there are comments (and subsequent interaction), and organizations who claim to blog to communicate yet disallow comments are being disingenuous.

I have to disagree with you, though, about the Zappos layoffs as an example of transparency and authenticity. The emails from Hsieh were not authentic, because they were neither candid nor honest.

Hsieh gets a lot of kudos for his twittering and other innovations, and much of this is justified-- but to hold up the emails through which he communicated the layoffs as an example of good, transparent, authentic communication misses and important point. It's not authentic communication unless it is honest.

For a humorous and pointed look at what those emails from Hsieh really communicated, maybe you would check out the post, "If Stephen Colbert were the CEO of Zappos: Explaining a Layoff to your employees" at www.AuthenticOrganizations.com .

I'd be interested in your thoughts on whether transparency works without candor. thanks-
cvharquail

FM Case Studies said...

Ted –

Sorry for the late comment on this post. It just came to my attention. There are some misunderstandings that I'd like to clear up, here. We couldn't agree with you more regarding the central theme of your post: transparency and authenticity. I've pulled out quotes from your post and have added my comments below them. If you'd like to talk more about this, please let me know. I'm happy to.

Also - I'm wondering why you didn't leave a comment on the FM blog post? That would have cleared things up immediately.

“…the organization doesn't allow comments.”

Of course we allow comments. We just don’t get many on the FM corporate blog. Many, many conversations happen elsewhere on FM employee blogs and particularly via Twitter. Feel free to leave a comment on the blog. We'd love more engagement there. And please follow http://twitter.com/Federated_Media.

“Secondly the post didn't communicate to customers, in this case the sites which Federated represents…”

The sites that FM represents are not customers. They are partners – valued ones. This action, while difficult, was necessary to respond to our partners and customers in the way that they have requested. FM sites received a separate internal email in advance of the blog post.

“And transparency has the additional benefit of speaking to the much larger audience of potential customers and potential employees to tell the company's story and show what the company stands for and believes in, demonstrating how it treats its stakeholders through good times and bad.”

Couldn’t agree more. This was the driving force behind our communications strategy. The news was relayed personally to those affected, it was announced on the blog, via email to all constituents, was broadcast via Twitter and employee blogs, and we briefed press whenever asked.

“…it wasn't about respecting the people who were being shown the door…”

We had separate, personal conversations with each of the people affected. These were difficult. The blog post was about the situation the company is in and why the company decided to do what it did. See your comment above: "tell the company's story and show what the company stands for and believes in." That's what this post was for.

“Paid Content reported the news with the headline "Federated Media Shifts Away From Display Ads" which is probably not the lede that John was hoping for.”

The PaidContent story is essentially correct. In response to customer requests, we are concentrating on our conversational marketing executions. Display advertising exists mostly in support of such campaigns. This is a complicated and nuanced discussion that I’m happy to have with you if you’d like – too much for this comment.

“But if FM is going to be a leader, they will have to start by being a good example themselves.”

Transparency, authenticity, and open conversations are fundamental concepts behind everything we do. I’m not sure how we could have been more transparent short of allowing the public into the boardroom.

Matthew DiPietro, Federated Media

Ted said...

Matthew

Thanks for the comment on your post. I will now hunt for your email address to see if it is possible to start a conversation with you - I hope that it is.

It is interesting that you ask why I didn't post a comment to your blog -- I DID. You didn't publish it. Maybe there is something broken in your moderation process.