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At first glance, it looks like the media has changed little over the years, except in how stories are documented and processed. With the Internet, more choice information gives editors their pick from an overflowing treasure chest of ideas. The organizations that previously succeeded in getting selected from this reserve now find they're lost among the gold coins.

Why? Because media relationships have evolved. Businesses used to stay in touch with contacts at specific organizations. Now, a person rarely stays put for more than a few years. Even if you keep a media contact list, it's rarely accurate. Mergers and acquisitions have turned companies into mega-sized companies—the mass media. These organizations are difficult enough to penetrate at all, let alone on a regular basis to keep in touch with a particular contact who's here today, gone tomorrow.

Each time you start over with an organization, you have to rebuild the relationship. By the time this relationship gets to a decent level, someone leaves. It's a vicious cycle. How do you avoid becoming a media dinosaur, long forgotten when the next story is covered?

If things besides avoiding extinction are on your mind, share your larger-than-life problem with the SWOT Team and get help. Pose your dilemma to our readers, and you will receive a free copy of our book, A Marketer's Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing.

New Dilemma

SWOT Category: Internal Weakness/External Opportunity

We're Turning Into a Media Dinosaur.

I run a small nonprofit organization that produces seminars and workshops. We used to get reasonable media coverage of our events by submitting news releases, but the newspaper and radio contacts we have been using seem to be tightening up their policies, thereby making it more and more difficult to get a mention.

Furthermore, when the media was composed of many individual companies for different types of coverage (print, radio, TV), it was easy to stay in touch with specific contacts at certain companies. Mergers and acquisitions have consolidated many media companies into a slim few. Most of my contacts are no longer around, and I don't have a way to tap into these organizations. How can I better network or become affiliated with these media organizations? How can we break through these barriers and increase our exposure?

—Allison, PR Manager

Previous Dilemma

SWOT Category: Internal Weakness

Stop, in the name of an employee's brilliant idea.

It has always amazed me that most people in a company think they are experts at marketing. Accounting does not seem to have that problem. Neither does our manufacturing organization. No one would think of walking into our corporate attorney's office and giving her advice on how to do her job.

But when it comes to marketing, just about every employee has an opinion. From the CEO down to the person in the mailroom, they are eager to share it. This interruption usually starts with someone appearing at my cubicle saying, “Excuse me, do you have a minute? I have an idea that might be useful.” I don't think this is unique to my company. I suspect that most MarketingProfs Today readers can identify with this situation.

It seems to be getting worse especially as we become more successful.

How do we change things around or handle this situation? I long for the days when I could do my job without interruptions.

—Diane K., Product Manager

Summary of Advice Received

Diane's challenge is how to handle employees who interrupt her work to propose marketing ideas. Two issues are at play here: Diane's time and the person's unawareness of the work required to take an idea from light bulb to reality.

Before we get to the solution to Diane's problem, however, it's important to understand why this behavior occurs. Marcus Barber gives us the psychology behind people coming up with marketing ideas when it's not their job:

  1. Most people are bombarded by marketing messages every day and have gained an inherent feel for what marketing is about.

  2. Marketing people traditionally position themselves as “idea generators”—the exciting innovative types who help make the world a better place through their flashes of brilliance.

  3. The human animal is forward-focused—it thinks about possibilities and seeks to act on those possibilities wherever it can.

Marcus says, “When you combine reasons 1, 2, and 3, you get people with an inherent understanding and a desire to help pursue ‘exciting' (for them at least) possibilities and hence the ‘knock, knock, knock' on your door.”

While Marcus may have discovered the cause of the interruption, he and fellow SWOT Team members propose various ways to better manage these intermittent interruptions.

Instead of the “reality TV” let's-see-what-happens approach that zaps time, your peers provide great suggestions to help you handle the situation in a professional manner, without turning away employee ideas. They offer ways to receive ideas without workday disruptions and, in some cases, teach employees the value of the work you do.

  1. Implement a suggestion box.

  2. Recommend an online forum as an alternative.

  3. Create timeslots to listen to suggestions.

  4. Use a combination of several actions.

1. Implement a suggestion box

Diane, a single message comes through loud and clear: the importance of welcoming marketing ideas from others in the organization. One of the more popular and efficient responses to encourage this is to create a suggestion box. It gives employees an outlet for submitting feedback, while giving Diane control over her time. She can review the ideas when it's convenient. She might even be surprised and find a gem in the pile.

Deirdre Fletcher, VP management supervisor at VogtGoldstein, encourages putting parameters around submitting an idea:

For instance, submitters fill out a form for each idea, answering questions such as, How does your idea relate to the company/product strategy? How will the idea bolster the brand? Why would the customer want to buy/hear your idea? What impact would this have on sales? Would this require more a) support staff, b) advertising, c) manufacturing processes, or d) other hidden costs? And for each question, you could ask for more homework (for example, they might need to actually talk with Sales about the sales question before coming to Marketing/Product Management).

All this is simply to do two things: 1) have people realize that marketing is not as easy as coming up with a clever line/new feature; and 2) deter the crazy ideas from crossing your desk and helping the really good ones get your attention. I'm sure with more thought this can be fleshed out and made to work in most organizations. It's all in the positioning of it (“Let's get new ideas!” vs. “Let's keep all your crazy ideas off my desk!”).

James Gardner, client service at One to One Interactive, sees Diane's challenge as the lack of a process for collecting and organizing ideas. His ideas for collecting information include capturing enough detail to allow some basic screening—such as, Here's my idea, here's the problem it will solve, and here's why it's unique. James takes the suggestion box a step further. He says, “Have a marketing idea fair in the cafeteria during lunch, where you can meet your product managers and brainstorm.”

Another reader uses the suggestion box process for further communication. He requires the staff to write down the idea and flesh it out. By doing so, the staff member is forced to think through the reality and practicality of her suggestions. When a suggestion has merit, the reader facilitates an internal focus group with the staff affected (usually late Friday afternoon) and allows the staff member an opportunity to propose his suggestion to his colleagues for further debate and discussion. If there is a consensus that the idea has merit, it is put on the table for further discussion and prioritization at the next marketing meeting. If an idea is accepted and implemented, it is reported in the newsletter. The reader adds:

I must caution Diane against one thing, though, the possibility that as she becomes more successful, she starts to believe that she does not need outside suggestions anymore. This mistake has cost me dearly and it is not one that I would like to repeat. Rather, get as much input as possible, but get it at the right stages of the process.

2. Recommend an online forum as an alternative

Karin Micheelsen, senior marketing and communication specialist with OMNEX Control Systems, has a completely different take on receiving feedback. “Listen, I don't come into your place of work and fiddle with the Slurpie machines.” She says whether you say it or think it, that line is therapeutic and a great self-affirmation. It tells the advice giver she is out of her depth in your world, where you are the expert.

This may not work for everyone. As much as we're tempted to make a sarcastic remark, we know we have to maintain our professionalism and be respectful. Another way to do this is by turning in-person interruptions into online communications.

Geoff Tucker, director of marketing at NovaCopy, welcomes input, especially from the sales staff on the front lines:

Set up a Web page on your intranet for submissions or create a simple paper form. Keep it short and sweet. If people want to share an idea, tell them this is the channel to use. To prevent MORE ideas being shared because of this formal channel, enforce guidelines into the submission process. The guidelines illustrate the criteria, the concept that must be met to be successful, and it lets you quickly eliminate most ideas. When they grasp the HOW of marketing, they're more likely to not share: saving you time and irritation.

Scott MacGregor, Internet marketing specialist with Search Intelligence, handles the situation with email and a deadline:

I create a distribution list of anyone internally who has (or may) contribute and send newsletters like MarketingProfs on the subject areas of the note (e.g., email newsletters, search marketing). This positions you as the subject expert and creates an expectation that they understand the rationale/goals behind their suggestions.

I also create deadlines for suggestions such as “Ideas/submissions for our spring newsletter will be needed by April 1.” Involve them; create the expectation that they need to understand their suggestions in the larger context. The ideas that come out are better, and the lame ones end up never reaching your desk (we hope).

AJ Smith, marketing guy at Niche Retail, tried the email route and instead got overwhelmed with questions and proposals. He tells employees that he has too many things going on and he will put their ideas in a folder for later review. “That way I'm respecting their intellectual property while maintaining my position as The Marketing Guy and not The Guy Who Wants To Know What Everyone Thinks.”

3. Create timeslots to listen to suggestions

Checking emails and phone messages take much of our time, and some managers have to put “check messages” in their schedules to ensure they address them. A few readers suggest Diane post her schedule, letting people know when she is available to discuss marketing ideas.

Avatech Solutions Production Manager Jana Gauvey tosses in the unique idea of quiet time:

I know it sounds silly, but in our communications department we have found that we are most productive between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and noon. We ask that no one within our organization contact us at this time and that we keep outside interruptions to a minimum. This way we can ensure that each day we have at least two hours of uninterrupted time. Some organizations may find designating days instead of hours works better.

Fleur Candy, marketing manager at Spotless Group, agrees with making time for ideas:

Try setting up a way to receive ideas without it interrupting your day. You'd be surprised how much people value the chance to voice their idea, even if it is not adopted. A common criticism of the marketing department (especially in large B2B organizations) is that it easily becomes isolated from the business.

Welcoming ideas from “the field” and acknowledging that they are valuable contributes greatly to your credibility and value within your organization. No one ever became a guru by only talking to other gurus in their field. We all know we can get “too close” to something and a fresh perspective may be just what the marketer ordered.

One reader recommends putting a humorous sign on the door or outside of a cubicle to indicate when you're available or not.

4. Use a combination of several actions

Consider creating a process consisting of a little of everything. Cognoware Owner Chui Tey's suggestion is helpful when someone unexpectedly brings up a suggestion:

I'd stop the person as soon as I realize it is a suggestion. I'd say hold that thought and explain nicely that you couldn't review any ideas at the moment, unless it was something that could be implemented with very little budget and time. Provide a standard form to fill in and promise you'll review it later. Do set aside some time to review them, give some feedback and route it back to them.

This approach avoids closing the door on ideas, but diverts the employee to another route, so the suggestion can be reviewed when the time is right for you.

Profit Per Minute Limited's Director of Thinking (nice title) John Batch believes the best people in the marketing department are not the career marketers. He encourages listening to colleagues, because they're potential customers without the investment in the product:

I continue to be amazed by the difference in attitudes when marketers are marketing their product and when they are buying something else (but they are still the same people). Let's try to channel these energies: perhaps have focus groups where work colleagues outside marketing can respond to your product marketing proposals; perhaps get a budget for the marketing department, so that a few ideas can be tested. Put in place a route that will channel the interruptions. By bringing together your skills with the fresh ideas of your colleagues, great things can happen. Make it so!

Michelle Carter knows that with great work can also come pain. She shares her answer in four keywords: support, repetition, priority, and patience:

Support: First of all, you can't be the lone ranger in your quest to turn this situation around. Get support from your President, CEO, or another director, or manager with clout. You need to have other “disciples” touting your message!

Repetition: This will be time consuming, but has worked for me. Spend time explaining why you do things the way you do and/or why a strategy or idea presented to you might not work. When doing the latter, point out the good in the idea or strategy and maybe show something else you are doing that addresses the same issue OR take the good out of the idea, and turn it into an even better idea you CAN use. Not all bad ideas are completely worthless. Repeat this process especially with the worst offenders. When you show that you think strategically and know your stuff, people respect you and eventually come round to your way of thinking.

Priority: This is an important one especially with regard to what I said in repetition. Don't let these ideas or input take over your time. Remember to prioritize the value of the idea or input based on your department and company goals. You can thank someone for the idea and tell her that you have other priorities right now, but will hold onto her idea and get back to her.

Patience: This process takes time. Take a deep breath and realize that you can't win every battle (especially when your input is coming from a higher level) but your goal IS to win the war.

The ADworks General Manager Carol Brandt reminds us that these situations are opportunities. She believes in having employees rely on us as experts in all matters of marketing:

The pay-off? They become allies and support our effort, which leads to new business and new clients. What to do? I keep a library of articles on a variety of marketing topics that I forward with a hand-written note that simply says, “I thought you might enjoy this.” Their opinions are acknowledged without commenting on validity. They learn more, and we have begun to create informed customers, the goal of all marketing programs.

Howard Seibel, managing director at Wharton Strategic Services, sends us off with a little humor. He says this is an occupational hazard that is part of the job:

Remember, these people mean well and they want to be acknowledged for being helpful more than for seeing their ideas put into practice. When I headed marketing for an online brokerage firm, I got ideas from colleagues all the time like hire Tony Little (the over-caffeinated infomercial star) to be our spokesperson or to put our company logo on somebody's cousin's drag racer. How did I cope? No matter what they said, I smiled and said I liked it. Then I prayed that they would forget about it, which almost all of them did!

Thanks to our SWOT Team suggestion box, we received fabulous ideas to help Diane with her situation.

Think of this column as a marketing suggestion box. You have the opportunity to provide input on a problem we pose, or to submit a challenge of your own, so that others can submit their ideas. We look forward to checking for your thoughts on the new dilemma. Thanks to you, this column is proof of how well a suggestion box works.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hank Stroll (Hank@InternetVIZ.com) is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.


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