The Painful Core Lesson Taught by 3 Astonishing Big-Brand Fails

Has the entire business world lost its mind? Some thoughts on interesting disasters … and on how to do your homework for better results.

Today’s a bit of a two-parter. First, I talk about some of the recent impressive PR fails committed by giant brands — and what I believe might be at the heart of mistakes like them.

Then I talk about how to “do your homework” — how to research a person or an organization so you can approach them intelligently. You can apply this to professional networking, sales outreach, looking for guest posting opportunities, or even job interviews.

In this 19-minute episode, I talk about:

  • The recent massive common sense fails from United, Pepsi, and Nivea
  • The two options any business with employees can take (choose wisely)
  • The big three elements of “doing your homework”
  • What (specifically) to look for when you’re analyzing the content of a site you want to approach
  • The super secret key to understanding influencers
  • The benefits to be found in playing along

The Show Notes

  • If you’re ready to see for yourself why more than 201,344 website owners trust StudioPress — the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins — swing by for all the details.
  • My interview with my friend (and employee relationship genius) Annie Pratt — I’m working on getting her back for another conversation
  • Remember when I talked about playing along? I hope you can come have some fun with our Content Excellence Challenge
  • Our community of content marketers is open to new members — you can check us out here: Learn more about Authority
  • I’m always happy to see your questions or thoughts on Twitter @soniasimone — or right here in the comments!

The Painful Core Lesson Taught by 3 Astonishing Big-Brand Fails

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Sonia Simone: Copyblogger FM is brought to you by the all new StudioPress Sites, a turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for bloggers, podcasters, and affiliate marketers, as well as those of you who are selling physical products, digital downloads, or membership programs. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why more than 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. You can check it out by going to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress.

Well hello there. It is awesome to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant. My name is Sonia Simone. I’m the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital, and I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog. You can always get extra links, resources, and the complete show archive by pointing your browser to Copyblogger.FM.

The Recent Massive Common Sense Fails from United, Pepsi, and Nivea

So, we promise you in that intro the occasional interesting disaster. We seem to have had a spate of them recently, of colossal, impressive PR failures. The Pepsi ad followed by the Nivea ad followed by United Airlines having a customer service situation that did not end up reflecting well on the company.

As is always the case with these kinds of things, there’s always a full story. There’s always details that people who are in the industry are like, “Well, you have to understand this or you have to understand that.” So I don’t know the full story and I won’t pretend that I do. I’m not going to tell you what Pepsi or Nivea or United should have been doing differently.

What I will do is tell you that I have seen mistakes that look like these mistakes go wrong for companies in the past. They sort of tend to focus around the phrase, “Wasn’t there someone in the room who might have raised their hand and said ‘This is actually a terrible idea.’” You might call it the, “What were they thinking?” problem. Really, truly, probably any organization has one of these come up sometimes. You just have a situation come up where you make a mistake that in retrospect you have to ask, “How could that even happen? How could we make such a bad mistake?”

I will share with you a reason that I’ve seen companies make mistakes like this. These insights and the specifics of these insights come from my friend Annie Pratt. She is a turnaround specialist. She is an amazing, amazing consultant who comes into companies and makes them so much smarter about how they work with their people. I interviewed Annie back in the day on my Pink-Haired Marketer podcast. I will give you a link to that interview in the show notes. These insights are very much insights I have gleaned from working with Annie and talking with Annie.

The Two Options any Business with Employees Can Take (Choose Wisely)

What I’ve observed and learned is that every company that has employees at all has two paths they can go down, two choices. This is whether this company has one employee or ten thousand employees or … I don’t know, there’s probably companies that have millions of employees. It doesn’t matter how many employees you have.

Option one is that employees can feel authorized to make good decisions when it’s not clear … it’s not in the manual. We’re in a situation that’s not covered by procedure. Or we’re in a situation that is covered by procedure but you look at it and say, “This time I don’t think that just following the process would probably be the right thing to do.” These employees feel safe to speak up.

These are the employees who will save your ass when a situation comes up that is completely unforeseen and unforeseeable. They will step up, they will take the information available to them, and they will make an intelligent, adult decision. It might be a different decision than someone else would make, but it’s a reasonably decent decision.

Option two is much more common, which is that most employees feel afraid to speak up. In some extreme companies, it’s nearly all employees. They don’t feel safe. They don’t feel emotionally safe. When they see things just about to go off the rails, they shut their eyes, because they know that if they say something, not only will they not be rewarded, they will be punished for being negative, for being difficult.

You can find this depressing. People are a bit cowardly, that’s how it works. But, the reality is people will keep themselves emotionally safe, nearly all people. Most people are not heroes. That goes for your employees. This is not just about people who work for you. Maybe nobody works for you right now. This is about people who work with you. Somewhere in your career, somewhere in your company, you are working with other human beings. You are working on teams, you are working in departments.

Anything that you can do to help other people who work alongside you feel safe to speak up when you’re about to do something really kinda dopey, when you’re about to make a mistake, when you’re about to do something that might be misconstrued or just might be a terrible idea. Be smart and think about your own behavior, and think about how you can help other people feel safe enough to let you know when you’re just about ready to head over a cliff. It’s business advice, and I’ve certainly found it’s not only business advice. It goes for all kinds of relationships.

The Big Three Elements of “Doing Your Homework”

Okay, enough disaster talk. I’m going to switch disasters a tiny bit and talk about something … I rant about this every once in awhile on Twitter. I get on Twitter and I get all fussy because a sales professional, bless their hearts, has sent me a cold email and tried to pitch me something that has absolutely no relevance to my company, to what we do. In some cases they’re trying to pitch me on a competing product. In other cases it’s just completely clear they have absolutely no idea what I do in my company, what my company does.

These are not hard things to find out. I get on Twitter and I get cranky and I say, “Do not cold email me without doing your homework because it makes me really crabby.” I mark you as a spammer and then I get on Twitter and mock you. But, that seems a bit pointless, except it makes me kind of happy for five seconds. I thought, and we talked about this a little bit in our private community, the Authority community of content marketers. We were talking about this last week. What does it mean to do your homework? What specifically do you do if you want to make a connection with somebody professionally, and you don’t want that person to do this online version of pepper spraying you because you’re just being an annoying pest?

That’s mainly what I’m going to talk about today. How to do your homework on somebody you’d like to make a connection with, whether you have something to sell or something to pitch or you just want to work together. Even to some degree you just want to maybe let them know you really think that their work is cool. I have a couple of key points for you to look at when you are doing some research on making a connection.

What (Specifically) to Look for When You’re Analyzing the Content of a Site You Want to Approach

The first big general overarching idea is you really need to know their work. You need to understand their work. If you’re a sales professional and you’re going to pitch a company, you need to know what that company does. You need to understand their product set. You need to understand how they market it. Most of the time this is not that hard to figure out, because our products and our marketing tend to be public things. You wouldn’t approach a writer if you hadn’t read their book, hopefully, because it shows.

This is easier when you make connections, if you have that luxury, and sometimes you don’t. It’s easier to make connections with people whose work you actually admire. It’s just easier. It’s more natural. For example, if you’re trying to get a guest posting spot on a blog, only do that for blogs where you really, really think they’re doing wonderful work and you just personally admire it. If this person does have a blog, then read it. Don’t read a week’s worth of posts. Really dig back through it. Look for the most popular posts. In an ideal world they’ll have identified these for you. There will be a sidebar with the popular posts or something about “read this first.”

This would apply for podcasts or books or YouTube videos, whatever it might be. You are specifically looking for a couple of things. The first thing you’re looking for is, “What are their recurring themes? What is their moral of the story?” From their content, what are you taking away from that about their beliefs?

On Copyblogger it would be things like, don’t take cheap shortcuts because they don’t work, quality matters. It would be things like, be sure you build your business primarily on turf that you control, which is a website on your own domain. Don’t build most of your business on a site like Facebook, because it leaves you too vulnerable. Respect the audience. The audience is where everything good comes from.

These are recurring themes on Copyblogger. When we write a post and we tell stories, these will tend to be the moral of the story, the point. You can’t pitch anybody something that violates their beliefs. You can pitch it, but it won’t work, right? You can not successfully sell somebody something that violates their beliefs. You have to find the common ground. You can’t find the common ground if you haven’t looked for it. That’s the first thing that you look for in their content and whatever it is that they’re putting out as their public face. Find their recurring themes and see if you can pull out their beliefs.

If this is a content creator that you’re trying to approach, you also want to look for their recurring topics. What do they talk about? What are the subjects? On Copyblogger these would be copyrighting, of course, a little bit of social media, email marketing, search engine optimization, a little bit of productivity and mindset, but more of a seasoning than the main dish. What do they talk about, because you don’t want to come in and pitch … for example, I’ve had some wonderful pitches on Copyblogger, and incidentally, I should let you guys know we are not taking guest posts right now on Copyblogger. Sadly, this is not a tutorial on how to pitch us for a guest post, although we might be interested in you for a podcast interview.

I’ve had very high quality people try and pitch me posts on Copyblogger for fiction writers. I love fiction writing. I think fiction writing is super interesting. I’ve done a fair amount of it, but we have run a total of maybe one and a half posts about fiction writing. We don’t run that. Know the person, the organization you’re trying to connect with. What do they talk about? Obviously, very closely related to their themes, but just in a more prosaic way. What is this company about? What kind of technology? What are the topics in a rather mundane way? A bread and butter way.

Then this would be more of a tip if they do create content, is do they have any in-depth resources? If they have an email list, sign up for it. Take a look at what they’re doing. Do they have a bonus? Are they publishing white papers? Do they have a PDF eBook? What kind of emails are they sending? If it’s a smart company, this is where they’re going to put their cornerstone advice. This is where they’re going to front load, “This is what we’re about.” You have to know what they’re about in order to make a good introduction. Now, a lot of that is common sense. Probably you just figure it out because you’re smart.

The Super Secret Key to Understanding Influencers

The second one is maybe not as common. But if you think about it, it’s just as common sense in a way, which is you want to research who you’re trying to approach, but you also want to understand their audience. Because if this, let’s say it’s an individual, if this person is influential, that influence comes from the audience. The audience is the fuel. You can’t be influential unless you have an audience. If you’re approaching a company, who are their customers? If they have comments anywhere across their organization, really spend some time looking at that. What are the folks saying there?

This could be blog comments, but it could also absolutely be Facebook comments, LinkedIn comments, anything like that. Facebook and LinkedIn tend to be pretty good for this right now, depending on what kind of personal organization you’re approaching. Remember the words of the great Yogi Berra, “You can observe a lot by watching.” Don’t just get into the comments and start running your mouth or running your fingertips on the keyboard.

Actually watch and see what people are saying instead of having to put your two cents in all the time. You’re looking for things like, “What are the audience’s pain points? What bugs them? What is it that they’re struggling with? In particular, “What is it that they turn to this influencer or this company to solve?” If you understand this, you have the key to that influencer or that organization. If you understand what their audience turns to them to solve, that’s the key.

The Benefits to be Found in Playing Along

The third kind of overarching advice I would give, good sales professionals are very good at this, and they really understand this, is a concept I call playing along. That is looking for, “What is this person really excited about right now?” It might be something professionally. On their blog they might be having a 30 day challenge, or they might be having some kind of a community effort. If they are, play along. Get into the game. Get into the game that they’ve defined. Make yourself a player in their game. Immediately they’re more interested in you.

Does this company or this individual have a big project on the boil right now? Do they have a book out or do they have a launch coming? Do they have a political cause that they’re really fired up about and they’re spending time talking about? Do they have a side obsession? Does this person have a charity that they’re passionate about or a sport or music or something?

These again, these are … Social media is such a good place to fill in these spaces. Social media is where we tend to get online and just blather a little bit about what’s on our minds. If you want to know what’s on somebody’s mind, go check out their social media account, and see what they’re talking about. The cool thing about doing your homework, it takes time obviously. Clearly, it takes time, right? But, if you are approaching somebody like me and you’re a salesperson or there’s something else you want to talk to me about and you do your homework, you stand out.

You don’t stand out a little, you stand out a lot, because most people don’t do it. Most people feel like they don’t have time so they spray and pray. They do a lot of volume of attempting to contact, but they don’t do a lot of quality. If you do a lower volume of trying to reach out to people, but they’re high quality conversations where you’ve really done your homework, you’ve really done the groundwork, you will not believe how much that makes you stand out.

If you do your homework, if you really approach your attempts to contact organizations, maybe you’re looking for a job, maybe you’re looking for whatever it is you’re looking for, if you do your homework, I really, really have found and have observed that doors are going to open where most people are only finding walls.

That’s my thought of the day. If you are interested in this idea of doing your homework and want some additional suggestions or additional thoughts on it, my post on Copyblogger today … actually it might be this coming Wednesday, we’ll cover the same topic. Feel free to swing on over there if you’re into text. Thank you as always for your time and attention. I’ll catch you next time.