Today’s “Not-So-Social” Networks


At the heart of every technological innovation is the desire to strengthen relationships between people and the hope that we can improve quality of life. However, lately I feel we have created “not-so-social” networks. The mechanics of connecting with others has changed dramatically over time, primarily due to visionary inventors, accomplished technologists, and the growing pressure to continuously do more in less time. (more…)


Amex Small Business Saturday – a Stroke of CSR and Marketing Genius

American Express Small Business Saturday is a fantastic idea, and as this year’s Small Business Saturday approaches, American Express deserves some special recognition. They have successfully created an amazing all-in-one corporate social responsibility / marketing program that absolutely hits the nail on the head in appealing to both America’s hope for a stronger economy and its distaste for the dirty side of consumerism.

You’d have to be living under a rock (or in some other place several years in the past) to not be familiar with Black Friday and Cyber Monday. These are two perfectly contrived and heavily publicized shopping days that fall on the Friday and Monday (respectively) following Thanksgiving. They are a chance for Americans to stand in line and trample one another to take advantage of outrageous deals on consumer goods and electronics merely one day after celebrating their contentment with what they already have. Bizarre as this practice may seem, it has a real place in our modern economy. The influx of foot traffic into our brick and mortar stores and the virtual traffic in and out of retailer’s websites is there to launch the holiday shopping season with a bang, driving interest in the latest product releases and this year’s must-have consumer goods.

The amount of time and money that big business has poured into creating this beast and the disgusting lengths that individual shoppers go to in order to obtain these hot holiday goods perfectly highlights the gluttony of America’s unique consumer culture. It has caused many to step back and look for ways to improve consumer behavior. On top of this, the prevailing political narrative across both sides of the aisle as been that America’s economy is in desperate need of more jobs and more growth and that, among others, small businesses are a promising source of this growth. Enter American Express.

What if American Express could capitalize on this same enthusiasm in a way that would generate it millions of dollars in processing fees?  What if it could do this while at the same time recognizing the hard work and ingenuity of local businesses and giving disgruntled consumers an alternative to waiting in line to throw their money away to big businesses? They sure as hell can, and did.

American Express launched a very, very well executed campaign that will undoubtedly be taught in marketing classes in top universities for years to come. They started by partnering with small businesses across America, encouraging those businesses to offer special deals only available to American Express card members. They then pushed an enormous advertising and social media campaign that encourages consumers to spend the Saturday following Thanksgiving shopping at these businesses – using their Amex cards. American Express has provided small businesses with a slew of marketing material. They’ve mounted TV, web, and print ad campaigns, and even have gone as far as to provide a tool available on their website, through Facebook, through Twitter – literally everywhere – that identifies participating small businesses in proximity to a consumer’s GPS location. It is a three-way relationship that benefits the consumer, the small business, and obviously, American Express itself.

This campaign should be applauded not only as a marketing effort but also as a brilliant corporate social responsibility initiative. American Express understands that there is probably no other issue that polls better in America then creating jobs, recognizing and supporting our hard working neighbors and small business owners and eventually, using this support to bolster the economy and reverse the economic downturn. The company recognized this, and took advantage of it in a tremendous way.

The result: over 100 million consumers shopped at small businesses the Saturday following Thanksgiving in 2011. American Express is seen as rescuing the economy in a way that seemingly neither of our Presidential candidates could. The company comes across as a fantastic corporate citizen, genuinely committed to helping everyday Americans and rescuing the economy. I’m not alone when I say that suddenly I find myself wanting an Amex, a business of my own, and damnit, I want to go buy a dozen cupcakes from my local bakery right NOW.

Dave Gifford can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@david_gifford.


What Groundhog Day Taught Me About Public Relations

Editor’s note: Welcome to Kallie Bullock, Sterling’s newest account coordinator. Kallie comes to us from Santa Clara University, where she recently earned her Bachelor of Commerce in Business, Marketing and English. Here, in her own words, Kallie talks about what led her to practicing tech PR at Sterling Communications.

A recent graduate from Santa Clara University, I studied marketing and English with the hopes of soon launching a career in which I could use my skills and knowledge in creative and communicative ways. I’ve interned in product and online marketing, dabbled in web design and social media, and explored integrated marketing communications campaigns. Now at Sterling Communications, I’ve found the outlet for the beginnings of my professional endeavor into public relations.

As a fresh graduate with a lack of work experience in the PR field, I found my first week at Sterling was a little overwhelming. In the background I heard mentions of pitches, briefings, and more PR lingo that went way over my head based on my focus in marketing and high-level understanding of what public relations professionals really do.

A few days into my dive into PR, in an effort to break up the day and get to know me, one of my colleagues asked me a simple but thought provoking question: “Kallie, what is one movie that you hate that everyone else seems to love?” Without hesitation, I said it was Groundhog Day. My fellow Sterlingers were rather astounded; what did I have against Bill Murray? Nothing, I replied, but for some reason, the movie has always stuck out to me as one that I have never found enjoyable despite Roger Ebert‘s critical acclaim of the film.

Be it the not-so-subtle irony found in Murray’s character’s name (Phil) or the Scrooge-like journey of redemption, I despised the repetition of the story. Just as Phil dreads living the same day over-and-over again, why would I enjoy watching it play out?

Coming from a marketing background, I had done the corporate marketing intern thing once or twice. Were my internships great learning experiences? Yes. Did they show me the ropes of working in a professional environment? Of course. Did they teach me that I didn’t want to work in an environment where I’d be doing the same work, day-after-day? Definitely. Much like how Murray’s character in the film lives out the same day over and over, I got sick of looking at Excel spreadsheets, plugging in numbers with no real passion for my work.

In an effort to appease the masses and defend my dislike of the film, I set out to watch Groundhog Day again. What I found in relation to my newfound knowledge of public relations and marketing surprised me.

At the beginning of the film, Phil is completely cut off from those around him. His lewd jokes and disdain for the others around him leave him self-centered and disconnected from his environment. After discovering that he continues to live the same day over and over, he works to advance his own selfish impulses rather than to focus on the quality of his relationships. His later efforts to rebuild these relationships are futile — his reputation precedes him and it takes him much more effort to build one of value. Ultimately, it is Phil’s new outlook on life and real investment in his relationships that allow him to break the Groundhog Day cycle. Phil has finally learned to care.

Though marketing and public relations may seem to be of different realms in many ways, really they are both about relationships. As Monika pointed out, “Business is all about who you know, how you know them and how to connect with them.” Public relations — and marketing as well — are both about building and forging relationships, whether they be with the media, your clients, or the public. If I’ve learned anything over the past few weeks, this would be it. No matter through email, phone conversations, trade shows, tweeting, or blogging, interacting with others and reinforcing relationships makes all the difference.

PR and watching Groundhog Day again have taught me this: Take the time to invest in relationships and don’t be afraid to give things another try.

Turns out, it’s not such a bad movie after all.

Kallie Bullock can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @kallieswaggg.

Lisa Hawes

7 Business Books Worth Reading

Bedtime reading for the curious consultant

Remember books, those things that hold about 15 tweets to a page? Here at Sterling Communications, even as we move to 400-word press releases and 600-word blog posts, we believe there continues to be value in the long written form. A newspaper or magazine article sometimes can’t contain all the ideas and case studies the author wants to share. Below is a list of books that have inspired animated discussions in our agency off-sites and “lunch-and-learns.” We recommend you have your teams read them too!

1.     Getting Naked: A Business Fable About Shedding the Three Fears that Sabotage Client Loyalty

By Patrick Lencioni

This is truly a “fable” written in an entertaining style that can be easily read in one sitting. It uses a David vs. Goliath portrayal of two fictional consulting firms to teach lessons on best practices for developing winning customer relationships. It’s stuck with me; I keep a note on my office bulletin board that lists out the “three fears that sabotage customer loyalty” described in the book.

2.     Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

By Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein

This book has echoes of Pavlov and Skinner in its description of how “choice architecture” (also called “liberal paternalism”) can encourage people to make better choices for themselves without having decisions forced upon them. At Sterling, this philosophy has inspired multiple changes in our office operations, from the important to the seemingly silly. Those boxes in the kitchen for recycling wine corks and batteries? An idea that came to me while reading “Nudge.”

3.     Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

By Carol Dweck

The book discusses how we can learn to fulfill our potential in business, school, parenting and relationships by subscribing to a positive mindset and encouraging such “”Little Engine That Could” attitudes in others. I found chapters 1, 2, 3, 5 and 8 to offer the most relevant examples and advice for a business environment.

 4.     Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t

By Jim Collins

What makes a company great? The author examines leaders in a variety of industries to find the commonalities. The chapters that have had the most resonance for me include chapter 3 (“First Who … Then What”), 4 (“Confront the Brutal Facts”) and 5 (“The Hedgehog Concept”).

 5.     The Ultimate Question 2.0: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer-Driven World

By Fred Reichheld

How likely is it that you would recommend Company X and its products or services to a friend or colleague? That is the “ultimate question” that produces the Net Promoter Score, a popular customer relationship metric. The book cites company case studies with useful tips on how to manage customer “detractors” and turn “passives” into “promoters.” One of the lessons I took away from this book was to think carefully about balancing the effort put into managing relationships with passives versus detractors. Passives can be nurtured to promoter status, while some querulous customers (and employees) may never be fully satisfied.

 6.     The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company

By Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter & James Noel

This book discusses critical career passages (managing self, managing others, managing managers) and offers tips on coaching and performance standards. One thing to know before you decide to read it is that while it offers some lessons for small companies, it’s really aimed at large companies with many levels of seniority.

7.     The Number: How America’s Balance Sheet Lies Rocked the World’s Financial Markets

By Alex Berenson

Although this book was published before the start of the Great Recession, it offers many valuable lessons as to what went wrong in the early 2000s with companies such as Enron, Worldcom and Tyco — lessons that, obviously, people ignored. I read it several years ago to gain a better understanding of the difference between public and private companies and their laser focus on quarterly earnings reporting. The author is a former New York Times reporter, which was a major reason I read it. I knew he would be able to present dry material in a clear, compelling style, and he succeeded!

Happy reading!


Lisa Hawes can be reached at Follow Lisa on Twitter @lisakayhawes. There is no connection between Sterling Communications and the authors or publishers of these books. The photo credit is to Lisa’s iPhone.

Lisa Hawes

Will Your Sweepstakes Win You Committed Followers, or Fair-weather Fans?

Last Friday, I caught tweets by two environmental reporters who seemed to cast a jaundiced eye on a sweepstakes launched by the Obama re-election campaign. The competition offers people that complete an online registration form the chance to win a ticket to a dinner attended by the president and hosted by George Clooney. Donations are encouraged, but not required, although donations on subsequent days will “purchase” additional entries to the competition.

My first instinct was that the sweepstakes was a joke. It seemed such a cheesy idea, à la the Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! rom-com of a few years ago. However, it’s real, and continues through April 30.

That got me thinking — if women who are generally supportive of the president think this is a silly idea that tarnishes the presidential brand, what must the general response be? I dug further in Twitter, and while I saw many excited postings, and a lot of jokes, I also saw some who, like me, thought the competition belittled the dignity of the president as well as women voters:

I hate to see our political process turned into a joke. No matter how much I may disagree with some of their policies, I cringed at the public humiliation endured by the GOP candidates during their reality show-debates. For all that I thought President Obama’s appearance this week with Jimmy Fallon was funny, it still bothers me that he must stoop to “slow jam the news” to communicate with the younger electorate. When candidate Clinton played his saxophone on late-night TV, it was something he did for attention, but he pandered less to the public after his election. Watch the brilliant 1976 movie Network, so oddly prescient in its depiction of TV news as entertainment. What then seemed extreme is now the norm — the satire has become reality.

For more information on the reaction to the Clooney sweepstakes, I decided to use a software application from a Sterling client, Attensity, to pull top-line sentiment over five days. I pulled about about 17.5 million comments in social media, with discussion peaking at over six million comments on April 20,, the day after the Clooney sweepstakes launch. The sentiment was more balanced than I expected, with positive reaction more than double the negative.


The Obama camp is lauded for its acumen in using social media and email to engage with supporters. In this case, though, I believe they’ve made a mistake: They’ve overused the new addresses they acquired through the sweepstakes. I registered for the contest; it was time I made another campaign contribution and hey, you never know! Since then, I’ve received an email every day asking me to chip in another donation in order to increase my chances of winning a ticket to the dinner. It doesn’t matter to me that some of the messages come in the name of the First Couple; if the frequency of communication does not diminish, I will unsubscribe — but only after winner notification on May 4th!

When you launch a contest, you need to consider a number of things: What is your end goal for it? Is it to get people talking? To spur people into giving their contact information to expand your database of supporters? To secure donations? The real question is, “Are these people going to remain committed after the contest has finished?” Too often, they “like” your Facebook page or sign up to receive your newsletter only to get that free ticket or chance at an iPhone. Call them what you please but they are not true fans, friends or followers. They won’t recommend your product or service, or canvas potential voters.

In the case of the Obama-Clooney dinner, I venture to guess that many of the people who registered on the site will not turn into committed campaigners. They were attracted to the star combination, and once the event has passed, will hit “unsubscribe.” However, in the short term, the Clooney name has managed to grow the Obama 2012 database and bring in more donations, so can be touted as a success.

In summary:

  1. Be sure that your contest is consistent with your brand image.
  2. Recognize that many of your contest entrants are fair-weather followers, so be careful about making decisions based on the new subscriber base.
  3. Be careful not to over-communicate, as incentive-focused subscribers will have a low threshold for messages.

Lisa Hawes can be reached at Follow Lisa on Twitter @lisakayhawes.

Jordan Hubert contributed the sentiment research for this article. Follow Jordan on Twitter at @jahubert.


Hunting the Creative

Here at Sterling Communications, we’re always discussing creative communications, be it advertisements, PR campaigns, media responses and the like. And, since we’ve recently joined the social media phenomenon that is Pinterest, we figured, what better place to share the creative campaigns we come across? Add a little friendly competition to the mix (best submission each month gets a Starbucks or Jamba Juice gift card), and the Sterling Creative Communications Pinterest Challenge was born. Each month we submit our favorite examples of creative communications on Pinterest, and the winner is chosen from those submissions. Without further ado, I present you with March’s winner: “Dollar Shave Club,” submitted by Sterling VP Jay Nichols.


Not only is the video from Dollar Shave Club creative and funny, but it encompasses nearly every quality one could want in a video (or pretty much any communications effort, for that matter): drives awareness to company, is cost-effective, clearly communicates the value of the product, and has a simple call to action.

Check out some of the other favorites we’ve come up with on our Creative Communications board on Pinterest. What are your favorites?

Amanda Hoffman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @hoffmandy.


Pinterest: the Next Social Media Frontier

By now most brands have (or at least attempted) a presence on Facebook and Twitter. And many companies have added sites such as Delicious, YouTube, Flickr and LinkedIn to their social media repertoire. But what new social medium has risen so quickly that it’s seen site visits increase by 4,000 percent in just six months?

(Hint, it’s not Google+, which is even being outpaced by MySpace when it comes to user engagement).

The answer is Pinterest, an online pinboard for images, where you can link to websites, follow users with similar tastes and interests, and either “like,” comment on, or re-pin their images. Less than two years old, the site is driving more traffic to company websites than YouTube, Google+ and LinkedIn combined, according to a recent report from Shareaholic.

A natural fit for consumers pinning ideas for a home remodel, a wedding, DIY projects and crafts, Pinterest is so addictive it’s been called “digital crack for women.” But aside from a huge time-waster, Pinterest may be one of the best social media outlets to happen to marketing in quite a while. Why? Because a picture is worth a thousand words.

Pinterest presents a visual and easily shareable vehicle for showcasing your product or brand – or for simply sharing content or links that are interesting to your target market. It’s like Twitter for photos. Launching a cool new gadget? Pin a photo of it with a caption, and the photo automatically links back to the source (your website or blog).

We all know there are good ways and ineffective ways to use consumer social media channels for marketing. Here are some tips for brands looking to use Pinterest for marketing purposes:

  • Pin content that’s visually-appealing. Each image you pin should have some sort of “wow” factor that makes people want to click through and/or share with their own networks. Think: innovative, interesting, humorous, outrageous, beautiful.
  • Write interesting captions that recap, explain, or provide commentary on what you’re pinning. When appropriate, mention the name of the company and/or product in the caption. When people re-pin it, they have the option to create their own captions, but many people simply re-pin verbatim. Including the company or product name in the caption gives your brand more mileage than the pin/link alone.
  • Re-pin and comment on others’ photos. Similar to retweeting, it lets them know you’re engaged and that you find their content interesting. Remember, social media is about conversations, not simply broadcasting.
  • Give credit where credit is due. The beauty of Pinterest is that it automatically links back to the site where you found the image, which theoretically ensures proper credit is given. Unfortunately, this process fails when the site from which you’re pinning didn’t give credit to its source in the first place. While most reputable news sites and blogs include credits for photos used, smaller or more amateur blogs and websites may not. To avoid stepping into sticky copyright territory, make sure the source you’re pinning from gives credit – or just pin from the original source to be safe.

As with all social media sites, companies need to closely examine if Pinterest will reach their target audiences. It may not be worth the time for some companies, while for others, it should be a priority in terms of effort. It’s definitely a beneficial channel for companies selling to consumers or companies selling a tangible “thing” that can be pictured. Companies selling services that are not easily captured with an image, though, should think hard about their goals and whether Pinterest would be an effective tool for reaching their customers.

Any other tips you can think of for brands venturing into Pinterest? What brands do you think are doing it right?

Amanda Hoffman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @hoffmandy.

Follow Sterling Communications on Pinterest at

Note: Sterling has no affiliation to Pinterest and we were not compensated in any way to write this.


The “Big Yellow Taxi” of Marketing

Yellow Taxi imageDon’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?

These immortal lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s classic song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” must be on the minds of Twinings Tea Company Ltd executives and customers alike. Following a revamping of its original 1831 Earl Grey tea blend with a new version that was met with hundreds of complaints on the company website, a Facebook protest, and customers rushing to stores that still carry the old brand, Twinings succumbed to this wave of negative sentiment (as highlighted in a blog post by our client, Attensity) and found a solution that aims to make everyone happy and serves as a reminder of the original blend’s immense popularity – particularly once “it’s gone.” Twinings’ move demonstrates the risk attached to tampering with a cherished institution – isn’t that right, Coca-Cola and D.C. Comics?


Hung up on social media ROI? What about the cost of NOT using social media?

Photo courtesy wwarby via FlickrLast week I had the privilege of leading one of the working group discussions at PR + Marketing Camp here in Seattle along with Jeff Sandquist of Microsoft's Channel 9. A major topic of the day was social media ROI.  

Even though a 2009 survey found that 84% of marketers don't actually measure the results of their social media programs, the concept of ROI is getting an increasing amount of attention. That's not surprising. We're well past the "gee whiz" phase with social media. As corporate marketing departments put more money and people into social media outreach, top-level executives at those companies want to see some tangible (read: bottom line) benefit from spending it. Yet, while there are now many more analytical tools available and a growing body of work that puts some structure around the concept of social media ROI, after the day's discussions I came away thinking that the industry as a whole is nowhere near close to reaching a consensus on what to measure, how to measure, or how to translate the results into something that non-social media-savvy executive can grasp.

Which is a problem. Because it's becoming more evident that companies that don't engage with their customers using social media are putting themselves at serious risk when something goes wrong. One example is Over Easter weekend last year, Amazon faced a fast-moving firestorm of criticism when gay and lesbian titles disappeared from its sales rankings without explanation. A single blogger raised the issue on Saturday and literally overnight #AmazonFail became a trending topic on Twitter. Amazon, which had no real social media strategy or presence on any of the major social networks (and still doesn't), struggled rather ineptly to address its increasingly vociferous and angry customers and outside critics. The story made the leap from blogs and Twitter to the mainstream media in a day. Had Amazon been an active social media participant, it might have been able to tamp down the flames before they got out of control by engaging with its critics immediately and directly.

So, what's this have to do with social media ROI? Well, here it is: in the two trading days after the rankings issue blew up online, Amazon's stock price fell nearly 5 percent even though the broader markets were largely flat and Amazon had no other news that might have caused such a drop in investor confidence. That 5 percent translated into $1.89 billion (with a B) of market capitalization for Amazon. We're talking real money.

Now, this turned out to be a minor hiccup for Amazon. By the end of the second day, they had explained the ranking issue away as a technical glitch and #amazonFAIL fell off the Twitter leader board. Amazon's stock price resumed its climb and the company suffered only mild bruises to its reputation. 

But what if the problem hadn't been so simple to fix (like the problems Toyota is facing right now)? Or what if, instead of a high-flyer like Amazon, the company had been one that is on less solid ground with investors? Those losses might not have been so easily reversed.

The lesson? While it might be hard to measure social media ROI, not having a social media strategy can be very, very costly.