Boston/Cambridge Tech vs. Silicon Valley Tech: Vive La Difference

a-rising-tide-lifts-all-boats1The west and east coasts of the US have drawn competitive comparisons for aboutq as long as they’ve existed. At least that’s how it feels to this extreme east coaster.

Whether you were raised on the west or the east coast, chances are you are passionate about the things that make each coast distinct, the things for which each coast have earned their distinct reputations.  Which coast has the best waves for surfing, the best snow for skiing, the better communities for raising families, the coolest home-grown music? And on and on.

The comparisons grow even more intense when you’re talking tech.  Which coastal universities turn out more talented engineers and entrepreneurs, Stanford or MIT? Harvard or UC at Berkeley Haas School of Business? And is Silicon Valley or Boston/Cambridge spawning more innovative companies?  Which is the best area to do business in?

Well, it really depends on who you talk to and which reports you read.  PandoDaily reporter Hamish McKenzie wrote a widely read article last fall and claimed in it that “Boston is in a rut”  with its “glory days of its enterprise might” behind it.  McKenzie even cited a Startup Genome Report which placed Boston in sixth place on the world ranking for best regions for startups behind the likes of LA and New York.

Strange thing is that here on the east coast, it certainly doesn’t feel like Boston/Cambridge has lost its mojo – at least not as completely as some claim.  Even McKenzie says the view of Boston from Silicon Valley is very different, and that once you get a chance to visit some of the incubators and the community of entrepreneurs working in places like the Cambridge Innovation Center where there’s almost always a waiting list for office space, you’ll feel the vibrancy and sense of urgency.

I wouldn’t say McKenzie is bullish on Boston’s chances for improving its position in the next Startup Genome Report.  But he does concede that the region “is in the process of bolstering a robust ecosystem strong enough to stop its slide down the rankings.”

As a dyed in the wool east coaster, I’m bullish on the region’s tech scene stopping its apparent slide and also on Boston fighting its way back to its rightful position as the clear no. two tech town in the US.

And I don’t stand alone on this.  Take, for example, Mark Held, the CEO of startup Weft. Held recently relocated his firm from San Francisco to Boston citing the areas ecosystem of enterprise tech startups, the talent graduating from area colleges and universities and the quick commute to NYC.

“Boston is where you go when you want to build a real company with revenue (as opposed to another social thing).  The Silicon Valley startup culture isn’t sustainable — we want to be around for a long time and the culture out west isn’t conducive to that,”  Held told the Boston Business Journal.

At a recent unConference in Boston, Pam Burton, who heads up the east coast office in Gloucester, Mass., for Accelent Consulting, has worked on both coasts and says, “The tech community here seems a lot more open and accessible, and really focuses on attracting investment and companies to be successful in Massachusetts in a more organized and powerful way than what I saw over there.”

Burton said that if a tech company founder doesn’t come out of a well known company or school, then getting attention on the west coast is harder.

Echoing Burton in the Boston Business Journal, Cathy Wissink, director of Microsoft’s tech community outreach division in Cambridge and a recent east coast transplant, said, “The energy here is remarkable in terms of startups, venture capitalists and innovation” and emphasized the big number of students engaged in the Boston tech scene.

Boston/Cambridge tech or Silicon Valley tech?  East coast vs. west?  Well, it’s a silly debate and we really don’t have to choose, do we?  When both do well, everyone wins. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Don’t Confuse ‘Thought Leadership’ With ‘Branded Content’ Or ‘Native Advertising’

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com on Nov. 21, 2013, and is authored by Davia Temin, who writes about reputation matters: crisis, leadership and strategy; and Ian Anderson.  
Thought leadership, branded content, content marketing, and native advertising are all stops along the continuum of how ideas are expressed, and products are marketed, over the Internet. 

Last week, “Google Search: Reunion,” a mesmerizing 3-minute video from Google India, blazed across social media, gaining over 5 million hits in just a few days. Intensely moving, unique, and believable, it tells a story of two friends separated in youth by war and government partition, who found one another in old age through the help of their grandchildren and Google. It brought most people who viewed it – and believed it – to tears.

One reason it is so very effective is that it feels real, and there is certainly nothing in the clip to announce that it is anything but a true story. But of course it is an ad promoting Google in India and features actors, not real people. It blurs the line between truth and fiction, authenticity and acting on social media – masterfully.

And that is just a taste of what is to come.

Church and State

In traditional media, there has always been a bright line between journalism (unsponsored, objective reporting and analysis that purports to uncover the truth, tell true stories, and be dedicated to the “public good”) and advertising (sponsored messages that have a point of view and benefit an organization, its products, or services). In fact, the Association of Magazine Media used to monitor the line between “church” and “state” closely – making sure that readers always understood which was which.

But this line has gotten mightily blurred in the world of social media. And that is not necessarily a good thing for a credulous, but trust-averse, public.

Unbiased, non-commercial research, commentary, stories, recommendations and reporting still are accorded more value – and trust – than marketing messages. But that does assume the public can tell the difference.

Have the reviews of the book you’re interested in on Amazon been commissioned, or are they authentic? Have the news stories you are reading on a website been written by a reporter, or a sponsored “news aggregator” somewhere overseas? Is that photo that touches you so much real, or Photoshopped?

On social media, most participants are looking for authenticity, but swimming in a sea of ambiguity.

What does content really mean?

And so, how does this affect corporate social media? Content has been proclaimed the coin of the realm in social media, but is that content church, state, or somewhere in-between? How do your viewers react now, and how will that change in the future?

Is the content your company produces, and posts on social media, thought leadership, branded content, content marketing or native advertising? And what is the most effective for your corporate needs?

Perhaps some definitions (and they are not easy to come by) can help illuminate the differences among thought leadership, branded content, content marketing, native advertising, and straight online marketing:

Thought Leadership

Thought leadership is the platinum standard of content-based reputation enhancement. In its pure form, it is information, research, ideas, expert commentary, and opinion that exist for their own sake, not to prove a direct commercial point.

Thought leadership is best for professional services firms, investment managers, consultants, colleges and universities, and any institution looking to build intellectual capital and create relationships because people find them intelligent, expert, and impressive. It is the most powerful kind of content, and examples include research from Deloitte, the Korn/Ferry InstituteMcKinsey Quarterly,BCG Perspectives, and Stanford Business Magazine.

Thought leadership can also be “viral” in that it provides new and interesting insights that can spark industry change. It can be used to raise brand awareness through sharing articles, white papers, and other thought leadership content with a broad audience.

Branded Content

Branded content is less platinum-standard, but arguably more fun, and effective with larger audiences. According to Wikipedia, it’s a fusion of advertising and entertainment, “intended to be distributed as entertainment content, albeit with a highly branded quality.”

This content might be humorous, entertaining, or interesting. While it doesn’t create the same kind of lasting, game-changing intellectual impression that thought leadership aspires to, it can be innovative in other ways. Much of what we see in online marketing is branded content: from videos, to contests, to hybrid campaigns that involve many different elements.

Branded content is often a bit more subtle than straight advertising – sometimes the content doesn’t have any images of the product itself, but is still trying to sell you something, or sell you the brand. This is the case with many YouTube campaigns that produce highly entertaining videos for marketing purposes.

Content Marketing 

Content marketing is the broadest category of all, encompassing “any marketing format that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire customers.” It includes everything from thought leadership to branded content, but is more direct in its commercial intent.

It is a broad type of marketing that includes the “sponsored  or promoted post” advertising found on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. Content marketing is often the means by which you “push” the branded content or thought leadership you wish to promote, and try to get your followers to interact. This can come in the form of poststweets, and even videos (like the Old Spice Channel, for example).

Straight Online Marketing

Straight online marketing comes in the form of the most basic online advertisement. This is a step below ‘content marketing’ and includes the sidebar ads we see all the time, as well as banner ads, pop-ups, advertisements before videos, and other kinds of online content that we usually consider junk. This kind of marketing can be successful when done very well – much like ads on billboards or commercials on television. However, the public is building up resistance to this kind of content.

Native Advertising

Native advertising is a subset of branded content, and the most problematic: it is advertising that masquerades as independently created content.

For example, on BuzzFeed, articles that are sponsored sit side by side articles that are not, and they look almost the same. These are articles that look as though they have been independently written, but were produced to market something. So, the Google Reunion video ad would qualify as native advertising.

As with Reunion, native advertising is often highly successful, with many “articles” gaining thousands of shares and millions of views. But much of the success may be a function of people not looking carefully to see that they are sharing  product or brand promotions. Often, people will retweet BuzzFeed’s lists with only a glance at the article, so even if the content is labeled as from a “partner,” folks on social media might not be aware that they’re effectively sharing an advertisement.

“I Am Press Release” – 107 Years Young

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Today’s guest post was written by Press Release, who recently turned 107 years of age.

It’s not easy being me.  After all, how would you like to wake up nearly every day to wave after wave of news articles and blogs and opinion pieces urging me to “die die die” or to articles claiming that I have actually been dead for several years already.

It hurts.  But it’s hogwash.  Thankfully, I have resolve, staying power and a thick skin.  I keep reminding myself that at 107 years old, I am battle tested and a true survivor.

How do you think Business Wire grew over the last 50-plus years to become a company that employs over 500 people in 32 bureaus around the world?  Well, it happened on my back.  And don’t forget that the Oracle of Omaha acquired Business Wire more than seven years ago and is now enjoying more growth as a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. So if Warren Buffet sees business value in me and recognizes that I’m able to adapt and morph and even thrive in the constantly changing world of news distribution and communications, well then dismissing me seems like a bad idea.

What about PR Newswire, the other big distributor of press releases? PR Newswire, which is also more than 50 years old, provides service to tens of thousands of corporate clients around the world.  PR Newswire, Business Wire and the entire community of news distribution companies that includes MarketwiredPRWeb and dozens of free services all have one thing in common:  they built their reputation and their business on my back.

There are those in the news community who say no one reads press releases.  Take freelance journalist/author Amy Westervelt for example, who recently wrote in her blog that the press release is dead, please stop trying to revive it. …  No one in the media reads press releases. Not a single person, I promise you. For some reason, companies still ask for them, publicists still write them, the wires still publish them—this whole completely unnecessary and ineffective ecosystem still exists. Stop it. Please. The only time I ever, ever hear a media person mention a press release is to mock it.

Hmm, I beg to differ, Amy.  To no one’s surprise, so does Sarah Skerik, vice president of content marketing for PR Newswire.

“No one reads press releases?” she says. “I’m sorry, I have data otherwise. People read them by the millions.”

Hey look, I’m not saying that I’m the be all and end all.  But if you use me in a thoughtful and strategic way like you do with your blogs and emails and tweets and whitepapers and eBooks — you know, as part of your targeted content plan and not indiscriminately like I see so many companies still doing while giving me a bad name in the process (aka spam), then I am going to deliver results for you.

I promise.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

5 questions startups need to ask before plunging into PR

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This blog post originally appeared on VentureBeat.com.  
November 26, 2013 9:30 PM
Linsey Fryatt, VentureVillage
To do PR yourself, or to hire an agency – that is the question. In this piece, Linsey Fryatt, Germany Managing Director of Clarity PR and former editor-in-chief of VentureVillage, gives us a teaser to her upcoming PR workshop and outlines what startups need to consider before jumping into PR.

Kevin Leu, a “PR specialist,” recently penned a piece in VentureBeat about why PR agencies are crap. Thankfully, PR pro Patrick Ward fashioned a response that was much more polite and balanced than I could ever have managed. Incidentally, Leu is also the founder charming startup that lets you rate women (or “girls”, as he prefers) based on how hot they are. On a map. So obviously his expertise on what constitutes groundbreaking branding is in absolutely no doubt.

But his piece does raise an important issue. The biggest challenge I have faced since recently donning the furry robes of PR (having previously been shod in the Hessian trousers of journalism for many years) is explaining to people what a PR firm actually does, and why — especially if you’re a new brand — it’s absolutely vital to have a PR strategy, whether that means in-house, consultancy, external agency or gorillagram.

Your marketplace is crowded and increasingly global. The media landscape is massive and fragmented. Your product is, and should be, the most important thing in your world, but why should anyone else give a sh*t about it? You need to make the world take notice, and in most cases, you’re going to need help with that.

There’s a certain amount of nervousness, especially in the startup world, in hiring a PR agency. And rightly so. Your seed or Series A money is precious, you don’t want to waste a cent on unneccessary or unquantifiable services. When you couple this with perhaps lukewarm experiences with one-size-fits-all PR firms (I assume the ones that Mr Leu might have issue with) and it’s difficult to justify any kind of spend on communication strategy.

My colleague Sami wrote a great piece on the questions you ought to ask PR companies before you hire them, but I’m going to take it one step back. Here are the starter questions that you need to ask yourself that will help you guage whether you need actually need a PR agency or not. And if you do, how to have a more fruitful relationship with them…

1. What do you actually want to achieve?

It seems obvious, but it’s easy to get swept away by the first flush of column inches. It’s not enough just to want “to get a piece in TechCrunch.” [Editor: Or VentureBeat!] Do you need to attract investors? Do you need key hires? Do you need a quick increase in user numbers?

Set you key objectives you hope to get from any exposure before you do anything else. From here it’ll be much easier to brief anyone else correctly.

2. What’s your timeline?

Getting scattergun press coverage around product launch is great, but it can be really difficult to follow up. I see many companies enjoy an initial spike of interest and then drop completely off the radar in those critical following months. Think about your product timeline, and consider how you want to knit a full communications strategy into that plan.

3. What’s your budget?

Have an idea of what you are willing to spend, considering the factors above. Whether that’s an external agency fee, human-hours within your company or a completely new hire. If you’re going with an external agency, then look for ones that don’t just offer standard retainers, but also ones that are willing to offer project-based work. That way, you can see how they perform around a single task.

Also realise that it will involve a spend to do this properly. Communications and marketing should be built into your budget and not just added as an afterthought once your product is market-ready, especially if you’re a B2C product.

4. What’s your story(ies)?

What three words describe your company values? Would all your team give the same answer? Spend half a day internally nailing down your core qualities. From there, it’s much easier to begin working on the rest of your communications.

What’s your context, what do you do differently? What voices can you add to a discussion in your market? What’s your story? And who are you telling it to?

This is where the fresh pairs of eyes at an agency can give a new perspective. Ask an agency for a handful of ideas in their pitch. At the very least it will demonstrate that they “get” what you’re doing and you can gauge their creative fit.

5. Who else is doing this well?

Which companies in your space are suceeding at this? And why? And do you have a robust angle or statement as to why you are different? Journalists like to have a product placed in context (“we’re the Airbnb for dogs”) but also the justification as to why you’re offering something different to the market.

Linsey will be hosting a workshop on How to Communicate your Brand on 11 December with VentureVillage. Click here for more details.

Read This Before Blaming Your PR Agency For Lack of Coverage

ImageOn behalf of PR agencies everywhere, thank you Amy Westervelt for your recent tell-all post on why startup companies need to stop pointing fingers at their PR firms and instead learn more about how editors and journalists do their jobs.

Amy is a freelance writer/editor/author and frequent contributor to business publications like Forbes, the WSJ, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Fast Company among others. In her post, “Stop Complaining about Your PR Firm. Here’s How the Media Works,” Amy’s shares nine things about the media “that will hopefully help you figure out how to deal with us (and maybe your PR firm) better.”

One of the bigger challenges PR firms face in working with startups is the clients’ often unrealistic expectations when it comes to media coverage.  The combination of ego, drinking of the Kool-Aid when it comes to their offering/product, pressure by investors, over sensitivity as to what the competition is doing and general ADHD-related behavior can be toxic when it comes to building a mutually beneficial relationship between agency and startup.  Add in the factor of a client who has a fundamental misunderstanding of what compels a journalist to write an article and you have a recipe for disaster.

Any engagement with a new client should include a period of expectations setting that includes how agency and client are going to work together (roles & responsibilities) to achieve the desired results of the communications program.  It’s during an expectation setting session, which should happen in the first week of a new relationship, when the agency account team should be able to find out how much the client actually knows about how the media works.  If the client is a startup, chances are the principals have limited exposure to the media and taking them through a primer would be invaluable to the relationship.

Ms. Westervelt makes a number of great points in her post, and I encourage you (if you’re a PR pro or a client) to read it in its entirety, but for now I wanted to spotlight a handful of her points.

Editors are important.  Freelancers are your best friend. So true. Freelance journalists are more prevalent and more influential than anytime in recent memory.  Unlike a staff writer, a freelancer like Amy may write for several publications. They can make more money by repurposing one article so that it might run in multiple publications, albeit with a different angle and fresh content.

The most important PR move you can make is to build and maintain relationships, and be patient.  Another great point here. Just because your PR firm was able to set up an interview with a journalist for you doesn’t mean that journalist is going to run right back to their office and bang out an article.  “Maybe I’m waiting for a newsy hook to peg it to,” Amy says.  The worse response by the agency is to harass the journalist to find out when the story is going to run “Because his or her client is sending equally as many emails.”

Stop worshiping at the altar of print media.  I think it’s still largely true that a print article is held in higher regard than an online-only piece.  Amy, however, says clients should thank their PR people for getting them mentioned in Time.com blogs.  “You may not get a photo of yourself in TIME to frame for your office,” she says, “but chances are those blog posts will be read more and pay back more over time than that one print hit will.”  Print stories still carry a ton of weight, then again, who buys TIME anymore?

And finally …The press release is dead, please stop trying to revive it.  Like you, I’m pretty tired of reading the press release is dead stories.  They’ve been showing up for years, yet thousands upon thousands of press releases are issued everyday in the U.S. though Amy maintains that “No one in the media reads press releases. Not a single person, I promise you.”  Really, Amy?  Members of the media still look to news releases to keep current on companies and their financials, business trends and for story ideas, among other reasons, including to occasionally mock PR people.

Otherwise, I think Amy’s post is spot on and I wouldn’t hesitate to share it verbatim with any startup.  Would you?

What Brand Ambassadors Can Learn from Honor Guards

American FlagHave you ever watched a U.S. military honor guard fold the American flag at a veteran’s funeral?  If you have, did you notice the honor guard’s striking appearance and presence, their laser-like focus on the task at hand, their dexterity as they expertly folded the flag 13 times until it took on the appearance of the hats worn by colonists during the Revolutionary War? And how they held the flag when they presented it, once it was completely smooth and its corners tucked in and it was perfect, to the survivors of the deceased?

No pun intended, but an honor guard does not cut any corners when it comes to the ceremonial folding of the American flag, when it comes to doing their job as perfectly as possible or when it comes to presenting the brand they stand for in the best possible light.

This week, at a funeral for the father of a good friend, the friends and relatives who stood outside in the cold to say their last good byes also witnessed a brilliant display of workmanship and brand ambassadorship, thanks to the honor guard.

To start the flag folding ceremony, the two young guards pulled Old Glory on each end until it was taught and then held it steady as possible waist-high.  With the flag now rippling in the breeze, the guards — making only eye contact with each other — began the methodical 13-step process they have rehearsed countless times.

Though skilled in their job there was no hurry in their actions, no distractions or multitasking at play, no desire to cut a corner.  Just the will to respect the deceased and his grieving loved ones. But also the desire to live the brand they hold so dear — and to do so perfectly.

Precision, attention to detail, professionalism, engagement and commitment to their brand. That’s what I saw in the U.S. military honor guard at William Joseph Casey’s farewell.

They are everything any organization could want in a brand ambassador.

Boston to Bill Maher: A Simple Apology Gets You off the Hook

A simple apology, done with meaning and quickly — like today — gets comic/satirist/political commentator/HBO “Real Time” host Bill Maher out of a jam for his rather thoughtless comments last Friday about the Boston Marathon bombings.

You’ve likely heard by now how Maher, on his HBO talk show “Real Time,” seemed to minimize the physical and emotional toll last April’s bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon had on the region.

Perhaps it’s just because he doesn’t live here, but Maher completely failed to grasp how the Boston Red Sox and the team’s unlikely and successful march to and through the World Series helped to pick up a grieving region and accelerate the healing process.

When a few Red Sox players placed the World Series trophy on the Boston Marathon finish line during the team’s victory parade a few of weeks ago, it was if the region’s stages of grief and suffering had come full circle.

But Maher doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he said that while the day of the bombings was a “bad day, three people died, that’s terrible.  More were maimed <Bill, it was actually 264 maimed>, that’s horrible, but unfortunately that happens every day, in car accidents and everything else.  I mean, your city was not leveled by Godzilla.”

He’s been criticized for his comments by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, by a number of newspapers (here’s a taste of what the far right is saying), and on Twitter by even the most fervent of Boston fans, like this one..

Jessica Britt ‏@jmacbritt14 Nov

@billmaher, love you, but disappointed by boston marathon comments. Parade route was where bombs were, meant a lot to our city…..

So Bill Maher gets paid to be controversial, like a shock jock.  On this particular issue, though, he overstepped the bounds of decency.  But I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt on his miscue — that he didn’t mean what he said and that he regrets it.

Tonight at 10 p.m. ET, Maher is on live TV again.

It’s Maher’s chance to redeem himself. A simply apology will do.