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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…)


2013 Predictions

Hooper, Patel and Dyor at the WTIA Predictions event.

Last week, the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), a Sterling client, hosted their annual “Predictions” event – bringing together some of the brightest minds in the Seattle tech industry to get their take on what trends and events defined the previous year — and what will be big in the coming year. This year’s panel was unique as it looked at the tech industry from a VC perspective, as all panelists came from various stages in the investment process.

From the traditional VC perspective was Steve Hooper, founding partner at Ignition. Matt Dyor, managing director of the Microsoft Accelerator, spoke from the incubator perspective; and Sujal Patel, former president at Isilon, shared his viewpoint as an angel investor. The panel was moderated by Enrique Godreau III, managing director at GSharp Ventures.

When asked what was one of the most important qualities of a company seeking funding, all agreed that the willingness to listen was important. According to Hooper, “If they can’t listen, they can’t take advice.”

When Godreau asked the panel their opinion as to what trends were on their way out, Dyor was quick to note that zero revenue models are waning. Companies and investors now are interested in monetizing from the start. Patel said that VCs have already funded too many cloud companies, and Godreau noted that that consumer Internet entertainment is overcrowded.

Panelists were next asked what scares them, and most agreed that losing our entrepreneurial spirit would be the demise of innovation. According to Hooper, certain government regulations could threaten an environment that fosters entrepreneurialism. Patel noted that China and India are poised to step in and fill America’s entrepreneurial shoes, should the U.S. lose its entrepreneurial drive. On a related but more local scale, Dyor cited the talent flight to Silicon Valley, should entrepreneurship wane in the Pacific Northwest. Godreau cited an entirely unrelated fear and a valid question: “who owns my ‘data exhaust?’”

When asked which industry is next to be transformed by technology, Dyor answered with “my inbox.” Patel referred back to “data exhaust,” noting that big opportunities await for those who find a way to analyze it and turn into action. Hooper hoped we would continue to evolve phones, citing technologies such as RFID and calling us a “click and done society.” Godreau believed the next revolution was lurking in the education industry, which stands to impede the next generation of entrepreneurs if standards don’t improve.

Next, Godreau asked the panelists what they were surprised hasn’t been fixed yet. Both Hooper and Patel referred to phones again, with Hooper lamenting why in this day and age, we still find dropped calls normal and acceptable. Patel commented on how ridiculous it was that email is still so limited on your smartphone. Godreau laughed at the fact that three way conference calls are still so difficult!

When asked whether there is a social media bubble, both Dyor and Godreau agreed that the next step is finding value. According to Godreau we’ve delivered entertainment, now how to we deliver value?

In closing, Hooper noted that there’s a lot of money to be raised, even in bad times. If it’s a great idea, great ideas get funded.

Patel added that there are so many misunderstood ideas, where no one believes in a product but the founder.

Misunderstood ideas? Sounds like clear messaging and a good communications strategy may be the answer, if you ask me!

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

Image via GeekWire.com.


2012’s Most Notorious Events

Happy New Year! As we head into what will inevitably be an exciting 2013, it’s interesting to sit back and reflect on some of the most notorious events of 2012 that caught our attention, and the lessons we’ve learned from each…

In January, just in time for Martin Luther King Day, many visitors to the new MLK monument in Washington, D.C. were taken aback by a misquote of the late Dr. King etched into the new monument. Thanks to the actions taken by the public, including poet Maya Angelou, the quote was eventually changed. Lesson: whether a misquote is printed in a magazine, written online or literally etched in stone, it’s important to speak up and make sure what’s being written is both correct and taken in the desired context.

February brought us the Super Bowl, and of course, Super Bowl commercials. Last year more than ever, companies not only shelled out big money for a 30-second spot on game day, but many ran ads and posted online videos in advance, essentially creating advertisements to advertise their advertisements! While many companies undoubtedly did this in order to supplement their pricey ad spots with cheaper or free additional exposure, ultimately the ads that garnered the most buzz were those who didn’t unveil their spots until the big day. Lesson: Timing is everything, and reaching the right audience at the right time is often more effective than sheer number of impressions.

In March, a Goldman-Sachs employee posted a scathing farewell to the company in the New York Times, igniting a media firestorm that ultimately cost the company a lot of money, as their stock price dropped 3.4 percent after the incident. Lesson: A PR disaster of great enough magnitude can have immediate monetary consequences.

In April, we discussed the Trayvon Martin shooting case, and how two brands – Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea – found themselves tied to the case through no effort of their own. While the association was positive (sales of the two brands increased due to people buying the products to show support for Martin), both companies chose to keep a safe distance, and released nothing more than a statement expressing their sympathy for the Martin family. Lesson: Don’t take credit where you haven’t earned it; we’ve certainly seen the pendulum swing the other way when brands find themselves negatively affected by an event.

We discussed the growing second screen trend in May, when ABC partnered with Yahoo!’s “Into Now” smartphone and tablet application to reach a large audience on ABC’s hit show, “Revenge.” Other popular shows like “Glee” and “America’s Got Talent” soon followed suit by encouraging viewers to use special hashtags while viewing. The verdict is still out as to how effective these specific tactics are, but it’s safe to say that innovative ideas like this are headed in the right direction, given the growing tablet usage and second screen trend. Lesson: Go where your audience is.

In June, we blogged about Facebook’s lack of courtesy for its users, when they made the decision to hide users’ email addresses in favor of displaying their own “facebook.com” email address. This is yet another example of the social media giant changing settings without regard to what its users want, in favor of what’s best for the company and its bottom line. Lesson: While Facebook may be able to do what it pleases with its users now, due to a growing dependence on the social network, they should tread carefully, lest they end up like Netflix, who fell from grace, thanks to poor customer service and increased competitive offerings.

July brought us tragedy when a gunman opened fire in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, killing more than a dozen people. July also brought us two notoriously ill-timed tweets, first when the NRA took to Twitter the morning after the shooting with “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?” CelebBoutique.com also posted an inappropriate Tweet, speculating that #Aurora was trending due to a dress worn by Kim Kardashian. Understandably, the backlash against both tweets was brutal. Lesson: when you’re a polarizing organization such as the NRA, perhaps scheduled tweets aren’t the best idea. Also, it’s a good idea to figure out why a topic is trending before jumping into the conversation.

Few events can inspire as much social media buzz as the Olympics, and the London games in August were no exception. From the bizarre rants by U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte to the downright racist comments made by Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou, there were enough media gaffes to make any PR person sweat, just reading about them. Lesson: An athlete does not a spokesperson make, and anyone thrust into the public eye could benefit from some basic media training.

September led us into the thick of election season, and Sterling’s own Dave Gifford traveled to Charlotte, NC for some contracting work with the Democratic National Convention. Three days before the event, some unexpected weather forced the DNC to change venues, throwing a wrench in what was already quite the logistical undertaking. Thanks to quick planning by Dave and his nimble team of volunteers, the venue was changed with minimal inconvenience to attendees. Lesson: It’s not always about having a B or C plan; sometimes pulling off a successful event requires the willingness to shift gears quickly should the unexpected occur.

In October, Nike found itself in a pickle when compelling evidence against celebrity spokesperson Lance Armstrong was found by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. In the end, Nike made the decision to let Armstrong go. While Nike has been known to stand by spokespeople plagued by personal scandal such as Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, this time was different in that Armstrong’s transgressions took place on the “playing field” – something Nike takes seriously. Lesson: Stay true to your brand and mission, and have a good crisis communications plan in place.

In November, a snarky and entertaining restaurant review in the New York Times went viral. In the review, award-winning restaurant critic Pete Wells thoroughly flamed Food Network celebrity chef Guy Fieri. Not surprisingly, this scathing review sent Fieri’s PR team into crisis mode, with Fieri himself appearing on the Today Show to assert that Wells had a personal agenda when writing the review. Fieri’s response took the lead in any follow-up coverage and in the end helped douse the flames on the poor review. Lesson: A well-delivered and timely response can help negate bad publicity.

We discussed Redbox’s entrance into the streaming market in December, and speculated how the move would affect an already ailing Netflix. Ever since Netflix alienated their customers in 2011 by poorly communicating a pricing change, the company has been headed downhill, both in terms of stock price and public reputation. Lesson: while it still remains to be seen who will come out the streaming king, it’s clear that treating your customers poorly only diminishes brand loyalty and gives them a reason to switch to your competitor.

What do you think of the lessons learned in 2012? Will 2013 bring us more savvy crisis communications? What new and creative tactics and technologies  will companies employ to reach their target audiences? Will we see more polished tweets and media soundbites, or are brands and spokespeople destined to make the same mistakes as those who have floundered before them?

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

Image via dreamstime.com.


Can Apple Still Amaze and Delight Without Surprising?

Apple fans are spoiled. For many years now, the company has delivered cutting-edge products that amaze and delight customers, if not always tech pundits.

Until the death of co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, one of the highlights of an Apple event was the trademark “one more thing” reveal. Iconic products like the original iMac, iPod, iPhone, and the MacBook Air were all introduced by Jobs at the end of his “Stevenote,” sometimes pulling them from his back pocket seemingly as an afterthought. Of course, they were anything but and the crowd would go wild.

Despite the fact that some products (like the original iPhone) were widely predicted, their full outlines and specifications were rarely known in advance. Apple’s legendary penchant for secrecy, coupled with its track record of setting new benchmarks for design and performance, created an anticipatory frenzy that contributed to the company’s historic rise from nearly bankrupt computer maker to global consumer electronics behemoth. Eventually Apple’s product launches became genuine pop culture happenings.

While Apple continues to create great products that customers clearly love, the method of its product introductions has changed dramatically. It had to. To his credit, the low-key Tim Cook, Job’s successor as CEO, has not attempted to do a Steve Jobs impersonation. He is no impresario and he knows it. Cook – by all accounts an exceptional executive – instead prefers to set the stage for others to make the big reveal. The message is clear: this is no longer a company led by a single visionary, it’s an entire company with a shared vision.



Living Up to Minority Report’s Technology 10 Years Later

“We thought 2000 was gonna be like ‘The Jetsons’ – It ain’t even ‘The Jeffersons.’”

While comedian Chris Rock –who told that joke over a decade ago– is still right today with flying cars and living in space not realities yet, one movie’s future technology that seemed largely impossible when it was released exactly 10 years ago during the summer of 2002 is now unbelievably seeing the light of day.

The movie is Minority Report from director Steven Spielberg, who, in the early planning stages of the film, gathered a group of people from various science and technology sectors, including a representative from military tech agency DARPA, to help him build a world that’s not only futuristic, but also believable. In doing so, ten years after Minority Report first hit theaters, several of the fictional technologies you see in the movie have already crossed over to reality… or, at least, are halfway there.

In the movie, the three precogs –characters who can see the future– are outfitted with devices that can read their minds and turn their brain waves into visual images. In the real world, a system developed in 2011 by a group of U.C. Berkeley scientists have been able to reconstruct images from subjects’ minds. We’re decades away from being able to fully read thoughts and transform them into crystal clear images, but this is certainly a step in that direction.

One of the more obvious technologies-made-realities first shown in the movie are motion-controlled transparent touchscreen displays. In the movie, PreCrime chief John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) uses a huge motion-controlled transparent touchscreen display to preview crimes the precogs predict. Today, gesture control is no longer a figment of our imagination, thanks to devices like Microsoft’s Kinect that even an Average Joe can get. But, what about humongous transparent touchscreen displays? Check out Samsung’s Smart Window showcased at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

A scene in Minority Report also shows Anderton watching holographic images of his wife and child. Today, virtual pop stars called Vocaloids have been holding sold out concerts in Japan, while in the U.S., Tupac was brought back to life as a hologram at this year’s Coachella festival. One company (Digicon Media) is also planning to bring Marilyn Monroe, among other icons, back on stage.

There are so many more technologies from the movie now popping up today, from voice control systems (hello, Siri!), to early-on self-driving cars (thank you, Google!). Cheers to Spielberg for making a film about precognition that has actually predicted the future!

Jordan Hubert can be reached at jhubert@sterlingpr.com. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jahubert.

Photo credit: mmmmmrob via Flickr


My Journey from Politics to PR

Editor’s note: Welcome to Dave Gifford, Sterling’s newest account associate. Dave brings a unique background in politics, and nonprofits. Here, in his own words, he recounts his previous experience and how he came to work in tech PR at Sterling.

Much like my colleague, Jennifer Kincaid, I can’t say I ever knew upfront that I would ever find my way into technology PR. In fact, in college, didn’t I always completely despise those engineer and computer science majors who were several times more competent than I was at doing anything with technology? So what happened?

By my final year of undergrad at the University of California, Irvine, I had honed a pretty sharp skill for choosing classes. My schedule was a work of art — class on Tuesdays and Thursdays only, leaving a veritable four-day weekend every weekend. It would be a miracle for my social life, I figured, but soon I realized, I had an incredible opportunity to fill this void with something truly enriching, something that I was passionate about. With the 2008 presidential election really heating up, I figured what better time to get involved with Obama for America?

I was able to work a few days a week. At that time, roles were broad and the pace was fast, and everyone had the chance to really take on as much or as little as they wanted. As school wound down and the pace of election season accelerated, the candidates started to visit the LA area – fundraisers, rallies, and everything in between. I was asked to start staffing events, then designing events, and before I knew it, I was spending the next few months leading up to November creating stagecraft and targeting it towards an audience in a different city each week across America. And I fell in love with communications.

With laptops everywhere, the connectivity needs of a mobile press corps to attend to, a BlackBerry in both hands, and the biggest social media operation we’ve ever seen in politics, suddenly technology became my friend, and the campaign’s best tool to convey its message. It was my first, and to this day, most valuable exposure to communications. For me, I realized that communications really comes down to one thing: developing the right message and delivering that message to the right people, and that’s what we were doing across the country for the most technologically savvy presidential campaign yet.

Fast forward to 2012 and with three years of doing the same work for the White House and some other non-profit clients, I’m back in San Francisco where I first grew up, and I’m eager to apply everything I’ve learned to the private sector.  My attitude towards technology has matured quite a bit since those days in school. Moving back to San Francisco, the majority of the people I know here work in technology in some capacity or another, and through my experiences and now these people, I have come around to understanding the power that technology has to change all of our lives.

I find that the most satisfying challenge is to look at a piece of complex technology and dig deep enough within that product or the company behind it to pull out a story that can touch all the varying segments of our audiences. I look forward to tackling more of these challenges, and I’m thrilled to be able to do it for such terrific clients as Sterling’s!

Dave Gifford can be reached at dgifford@sterlingpr.com. Follow him on Twitter @David_Gifford.


From Chinese Babies to Risk Management Software – My Journey into the World of Tech PR

Editor’s note: Welcome to Jenn Kincaid, Sterling’s newest account executive. Jenn’s brings to Sterling a background in journalism, writing about child welfare institutions in China. Here, Jenn recounts her previous experience and how she found herself at Sterling. Welcome, Jenn!

If you had asked me, say, 10 years ago if I would end up in tech PR, I would have a.) asked you if you were talking about the same Jenn Kincaid, then b.) asked what the French toast is “tech PR?”

I double-majored in journalism and communication studies here in the Bay Area. My first job out of college was with an alternative weekly newspaper in Sacramento, Calif., where – among many other things – I wrote about sustainability and coordinated community arts projects. When I moved back to San Francisco, I started work at a strategic communications and environmental planning firm, where I was thrust into the world of government consulting. I left that job to be the writer and Web content editor at a nonprofit that implements nurturing-care programs in child welfare institutions in China.

But as varied as my experience and education has been, there was one common thread – I was required to learn different applications, technology, and social media tools. So, I began thinking… what would happen if I combined everything: interest in technology, the passion for writing and the communications background? Enter Sterling Communications.

At first, I had my concerns. Although I had experience with public relations, it was on the editorial side – and even though PR is kind of like what would happen if journalism and communications had a baby, I was coming from working as a writer at a nonprofit whose work was implemented in a country halfway across the world. And then there’s the small issue of not being the most technologically adept in my personal life. I think I am the only one I know who has managed to crash a hard drive on a 6-month-old Macbook (losing edits to a semester-long project and breaking my heart). Three phones have fallen into various bodies of water, from toilets to an East Bay lake. A brand-new Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot just stopped working one day. So did its replacement.

But despite – or maybe because of – technology’s aversion to me, I am fascinated by it. As my friend says, it inspires in me the “dog-like instinct to chase what flees” from me. Learning new applications and then successfully understanding and implementing them leaves me with a triumphant feeling, as if I’ve just run a mental marathon or scaled a cranial Kathmandu mountain. It’s not just the behind-the-scenes workings, the “wizard behind the curtain,” that draws me in; it’s the end-results of implementing technology. It’s the endless realm of possibilities that technology enables and the amazing accomplishments technology allows us to achieve.

So it’s been a really interesting step from writing about disadvantaged children in China to writing about BYOD mobile risk management software. There’s been quite the difference between learning CEQA/NEPA regulations and learning what exactly DevOps and agile software development is. I’ll be the first to admit – it’s been quite the learning curve. Luckily, I’ve found absolutely amazing teachers in my new colleagues and superiors, whose patience, vast wealth of knowledge, and senses of humor have been professional and personal gifts to me every day. And as the tech world is changing and advancing every single minute of every single day, here in the heart of all this growth, I am excited to be along for the ride.

Jennifer Kincaid can be reached at jkincaid@sterlingpr.com. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JennLKincaid


The Future of Holiday Shopping

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday, Daily Comparison Shopping.

Technology has changed the way consumers approach the holidays. For years now, media and analysts have pointed to Cyber Monday as the prime example of this.

In the next few years, mobile applications could very well outpace the Cyber Monday (and even Black Friday) hubbub.

No, really.

There have been a number of barcode-scanning applications, including RedLaser, ShopSavvy and Barcode Scanner (Android only) for some time now, and last week, Amazon delivered a one-day discount using their “Price Check” application, which uses barcode-scanning technology. This discount encouraged consumers to go into a local store and scan an item. Consumers could then buy the product from Amazon, who would discount the product accordingly.

For most consumers, this was likely seen as an exciting offer. Many merchants, particularly local ones, found this practice extremely angering. Why? Amazon was ostensibly using their storefronts as showrooms, taking advantage of these “brick and mortar” locations to sell their wares.

To look at it another way, while technology may be making things easier for the consumer with these savvy applications, they could also very easily be creating a serious reputation problem for Amazon.

Think of it as the “Wal-Mart-ization” of the massive online retailer.

Amazon has historically had a wonderful reputation: a good place to work, great customer service, high-quality products and fast shipping. But with tactics such as this, they risk being seen as the “big kid on the block,” bullying the little guys and potentially putting them out of business.

Fifteen years ago, Barnes & Noble and Borders muscled their way into markets across the country and were largely blamed for the death of local bookstores. Today, Borders is gone and B&N is gasping for air. Amazon is seen as the reason for their struggling businesses.

Most consumers, however, don’t have emotional attachments or a vested interest in making sure these large companies stay afloat, the way they do for small, locally-run stores.

By encouraging consumers to take advantage of these storefronts (as nicely highlighted in this San Jose Mercury News article) Amazon is playing a dangerous and, possibly ill-advised chance with their corporate citizen reputation.

It may be wise for them to think through the possible negative results of their actions before they do damage that can’t be easily undone.

Devin Davis can be reached at ddavis@sterlingpr.com. Follow him on Twitter @DevinDavis.


Why Online Shopping Megabit This Year

With bellies full of warm Thanksgiving goodness, many Americans turn from stuffing themselves to stuffing holiday stockings with Black Friday deals. In last week’s blog post, I explored how the Internet and mobile shopping are changing Black Friday. After countless interviews and maneuvering through throngs of frenzied shoppers, I was able to answer the questions I posed and also learned a valuable lesson: don’t shop on Black Friday.

While mobile and online purchases both set record highs again this year, online shopping failed to compare to the profits from brick-and-mortar stores even though it was the largest e-commerce shopping day in history. Those avid shoppers I spoke with assured me the in-store deals were worth the wait and the mad scramble, and that seems to be the consensus among American consumers who came out in record numbers on this most holy of shopping days. Black Friday brought in $52 billion (online and in-store) while Cyber Monday saw only $1.2 billion in sales, but there were 29.3% more internet sales on Cyber Monday than there were on Black Friday ($816 million). About 50 million Americans visited online sites on Black Friday and roughly 122 million shopped Cyber Monday. Technological devices were the most popular item on Black Friday making Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, Target, and Apple the top five online retailers respectively. So why in the mobile era is the Internet failing to reign supreme when its growth outpaces that of brick and mortar stores?

The answer to this is that stores are doing a better job of capturing customers with door-buster and in-store exclusive deals. Most people I spoke with at Fry’s and Best Buy went there for specific items they had seen advertised, such as the 42″ LCD TV Best Buy listed for $199.99. I’ll admit, after hearing that one I was tempted to get in line, but with only a few in stock, I would have needed to show up about 10 hours earlier to get anywhere near the front. It seems that offering exclusive in-store deals is effective in getting people away from their computers and Thanksgiving dinners and into stores. Retailers want to draw people in to their physical location because people tend to buy more in-store than online.

Shopkick, an app that rewards users for just walking into stores, recently teamed up with Visa to offer an integrated purchase reward program just in time for the holidays. Now anyone who has a Visa who shops at a participating store location will earn rewards for walking in and for the purchases they make with their Visa card. The app also shows the user deals the store is offering. So even if Amazon is offering that same 42″ TV for $199.99, consumers may still be inclined to go to the store to pick it up for all the extra rewards points they could earn.

Until online retailers offer the same deals as their brick-and-mortar counterparts, online retailers cannot reign supreme. Realizing the threat that online shopping poses, it is smart for stores to offer incentives to people to come in. When was the last time you got points just for logging into Amazon? If online retailers want to stay competitive they are going to have to team with companies like Visa to compensate shoppers for their purchases because, as we have seen this year, free shipping and no sales tax just isn’t cutting it.

Monika Hathaway can be reached at mhathaway@sterlingpr.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jazzpatron.