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Technology PR — perhaps more than any other practice area — sits at the crossroads between traditional PR and its convergence with other marketing disciplines. In some cases, while technology companies are on the cutting edge of innovation, their PR needs can be somewhat traditional. As integrated has moved from a buzzword to reality, the technology sector is evolving its long-held beliefs about PR.
The Holmes Report partnered with Racepoint Global to explore the current state of technology PR at the 2015 Technology Roundtable in Cupertino, California. The roundtable included a group seasoned Silicon Valley PR veterans.
"I disagree with these findings — I’ve been in-house and at the agency and I would think the biggest skill is simple storytelling," Applied Materials' Winston said. "Both in-house and at the agency, we have people who are very good at social media. And the whole genre lends itself to this immediacy, which is fine and good, but it doesn’t lend itself to longer-term planning or telling a longer-term story arc for the company. I bring this up with my team and my agency and they have no idea what I’m talking about. I do think a part of this is the immediacy of social media."
Likewise, Riverbed's Dainas also referenced his organization's social media approach. "Our sales team at Riverbed really wants to participate in social, and so with them, or any other department, it’s about enablement — enabling them and giving them the tools to participate in social media because they have another job. You have to ask, how can you make it easy for them to Tweet or post on LinkedIn? We always say, we have 2,000 employees and if every person sends out a big announcement on LinkedIn, we’ve reached more than a million people."
"We started a brand ambassador program to galvanize our 500 employees to get our message out and help prioritize," Adaptive Insights' Orr added.
Racepoint's Weber predicted "we're not going to have social media titles by 2020 and we’ll go back to more content strategies, whether you call it storytelling or whatever. It’s about moving constituencies to take action. You can do that if you focus on content strategies, creation, then distribution."
The conversation then turned to whether technology companies can — or should — produce award-winning work like the 2013 Cannes Lions winner "The Beauty Inside" by Intel and Toshiba.
PayPal's Nayar wondered "how many of those 70 million people who viewed the video actually did something? And if any did, it was probably the influence of Toshiba, not Intel. That was a cute story and beautiful but...it’s clearly not a small budget item."
Meanwhile, Weber noted "things like this are very frustrating for our industry. This is made by paid media people and eventually paid media will become subservient to earned media and owned media, which is our direction. Also PR hasn’t had creative departments to drive this, PR focuses on account people to come up with storytelling. And sometimes someone who majored in English is going to just be good writing. The paid media side has thought visually for so much longer, while we've thought in text. And as text disappears in the next few years, it’s important that our industry really has videographers and creative departments — and stands up for ourselves. We have the depth to do more than a commerical in a non-commercial setting."
The Art of Story Mining
Lithium Technologies' Brown said, "I think the real tension for a communications pro today is not to tell stories, but to harvest them, find them, amplify them and let our users tell them for us. If you look at your communications engine as a hunter instead of a farmer, you will get results."
The conversation shifted to mining the stories, not just telling them. Seagate's Busselen pointed out, "This industry was based upon — founded upon — former reporters who knew how to listen, construct and dispense a really good narrative. They were good listeners — being a good reporter is being a good listener and knowing what are good stories. Somewhere along the way we got into mass distribution, pushing and telling.
Lithium's Brown added, "We have to go within our organizations and be the reporters. We have to listen to what the engineers, sales teams and executives are excited about and formulate a narrative."
Amplifying The Story — To The Right Audiences
PayPal's Nayar said "As an industry, we tend to tell a story and then we’re off to the next one. But we have to ask, how do you take a story and make sure you got every piece of value out of it?"
Applied Materials' Winston added, "If you set out a meaningful story arc for your company for one or two years, you can keep coming back to it. Also, you need consistency for people to 'get it.' There needs to be consistency especially for brand building."
"I’m a big fan of paid and branded content in a consumer context because you have a lot of creative levers at your disposal and a lot of different passion points that you can tap into," Lithium's Brown said. "I hugely believe in shameless paid in that arena. With enterprise, when I do a paid option, I look for a package deal that's only a tiny part editorial. It’s really about the off-line networking events because one article — whether it's in Fortune or Forbes — doesn't provide the same value as getting in front of the real decision-makers, who increasingly don’t care about whether there was an article in Fortune or Forbes. What they care about is face-time."
"When it comes to native advertising, many publications are now letting you design your own package. They will ask you — what do you want here? Who do you want in the room [for the networking event]? You can pick and choose," added Vaunt's Perkins.
What Does Your CEO Care About?
"If you're public, your CEO cares about stock price and revenue — to the degree we can link what we do to either of those, that’s where we get the budget," Seagate's Busselen said. "Where we can’t, impressions are a place holder in a non-informed conversation. And if impressions are positive, that must help one or other or both."
"We have been much weaker than the ad industry when it comes to coming up with metrics," Racepoint's Weber said. "We have these discussions with CMOs all the time. They care about: engagement time, content downloads, sharing. But no one is doing this the way the ad world did in the 60s and 70s, which is deciding to measure themselves. For me, I’m most interested in engagement time, how long you spend in a digital environment. And I think CEOs will buy that."
"I think PR still has to do a better job of tying that to sales, revenue and leads," said Lithium's Brown. "Maybe we have a tougher hill to climb than others, it’s a hard nut to crack when you’re looking at awareness and top of funnel activity."
"We are sometimes trying to measure things that aren’t measurable and that’s OK," said Applied Materials' Winston. "There is sometimes this knee-jerk reaction for folks who grew up in technology to have data and measure everything. But you can’t measure the halo effect a good PR campaign has on your brand. It opens the doors for sales people to have a discussion and the person on the other side of the table knows who you are because of the halo effect."
"The tools are there for measurement," said PayPal's Nayar. "But it would cost me 40% to 50% of my budget to manage it correctly. It’s hard for me to say: 'My budget is x and I’ll spend half of x on managing the other half.' There is no way I could sell that into any C-level executive…But you can’t not be monitoring Twitter, you can’t not be paying attention to what is being said about us — even if you don’t engage, you need to know what’s being said."
"I find that if you boil it down to small audiences — a specific audience segmentation or geography," Seagate's Busselen said. "And you achieve certain earned events and you can see spikes from those events driving sales, views and engagement. When you boil it down to the micro, you can drill it down and find the individual proof points. Then you can sell the whole the thing."
Riverbed's Dainas said, "The other thing I’ll point to is, there is the revenue, but recruitment is important to companies too. So there are ways that you can partner with the stakeholder, in this case HR, to contribute to that."
Adaptive Insights' Orr added, "For us thought leadership is huge, but how do you measure that? You want to step forward, emerge as a leader and own your category. You can measure share of voice, but is that tied to a sale? It’s an intangible."
"For me, the data and analytics can play either way," said Jaunt's Perkins. "If you talk to any statistician, they will ask you: what story do you want to hear? I can give you numbers behind anything you want."
Applied Materials' Winston chimed in, "A lot of the value that I provide — and my team provides — depends on the function you're talking about: to HR, a business unit on whatever communications need part of the organization may have. At the end of the day, if someone asking the CEO if they find value in Kevin’s group, they would say yes because I’m helping the entire organization with their communications. And many departments, like engineers, are hideously inept at doing that."
Disrupting The Status Quo
"If agencies had half as good a process for running accounts as for winning new business, we would all be winning awards in Cannes," said Seagate's Busselen. "When it comes to winning new business, agencies bring the best minds and generate all kinds of creativity. Then they win the account — and generally and unfortunately — the account team settles in and creativity goes down the ramp."
When asked how to foster a healthier agency relationship, Busselen said "stability would be a good place to start. When you have an agency with processes and management in place that keeps account people there, you can build the relationships that get that fruitful return. You don’t want to hire an agency with 40% turnover — that will fail. Start with that, good management, good operations, pay people well, and then it’s arms and legs and it’s also creativity and coming in periodically, like it's a new business pitch, with fresh ideas. Don’t wait for us to be dissatisfied. Agencies get complacent — 'this account is OK, it’s profitable, we’re not over-servicing it. Let’s focus where the problem are. No, you should focus on the profitable ones.'
Racepoint's Weber added, "When you get hired to just do publicity, the lifespan of that engagement isn’t very long. What I would tell Silicon Valley is, the more we can find the intersection between technology and humanity in our storytelling, the more impact we’re going to have. That will be extremely powerful. Agencies should also become creative drivers."
"I want to talk to the guy who is down there writing the copy," Jaunt's Perkins said. "Because the translation doesn’t really work. Coming at this from the entertainment industry, I don’t want to talk to the post-supervisor, I want to talk to the editor. Otherwise, I'll get a watered down version of what I need."
"For agencies that are stale, I'll ask them to bring two new ideas to each weekly call," said Riverbed's Dainas. "And that means they have to go around and come up with some creative things. When I’ve done this, 80% ideas we don’t use, but 10% to 20% of them we do and there are some gems in there."
"You can’t do this for $15k a month or $20K — the ask goes two ways," Racepoint's Weber pointed out. "You get what you pay for. Let’s talk $100K per month. I'm curious, do you want the depth of knowledge in your technology and your market versus the ad model where they come with the skills of advertising rather than that of your category?"
Applied Materials' Winston answered, "Sure, it’s a leg-up for an agency to have experience in semiconductor, but I’d rather have somene who understands the nuances of the function themselves. Both is a big win, but I’d choose the skill of the function rather than the knowledge of semiconductor."
"If it’s a big enough account, I want both," Busselen noted.
The technology roundtable was held on August 27, 2015 in Cupertino, California.
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