Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

How a Tough Year for Your Business in 2009 Might Mean a Fantastic 2010

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but 2009 was actually a great year at Tribe. And I’m thinking it might have been at your company too.

Of course, we did lose our largest client, due to the slump in the housing market. We had to lay off a few talented, hardworking people that we’d hire again in a heartbeat. We cut back on some perks, like having a fresh flower in everyone’s office each Monday and providing free takeout for lunch five days a week. We froze salaries for most of the year. We gave a somewhat smaller holiday bonus than usual.

On the other hand, we’ll enter 2010 ready to compete on a much higher level than ever before. We’ve used this slow year to reinvent, and to move into some new territory. We’ve expanded our internal communications practice area to incorporate social media and engagement tools. We’ve created some interesting initiatives in new media, for both consumer audiences and employee ones. We’ve developed expertise in some key research areas, like the widely varying perspectives of Gen Y, Gen X and Boomer employees in the workplace, and recession spending by affluent couples. We’ve dabbled in creating our own content and products, like our “Start Your Own Company” card deck and iPhone application.

Other small business owners I’ve talked with seem to have done their own share of reinventing. This year has been about accepting that the recession is real, having time to reflect on what works and what doesn’t about our companies, and exploring some new areas we might not have had time to spend time on before.

Everyone’s talking about how companies are stronger for trimming expenses and figuring out bow to do more with less. Thinking small is a good exercise.

But an even better way to think is how we could get bigger. Ways we could expand to serve other types of clients than we have in the past. How we could fill some new need that’s not being met. What we could do next that would make us wake up excited about getting in to the office.

Nature moves in cycles, and business does too. New moon to full moon. High tide to low. Winter to spring. 2009 has been a good year for sending our roots deeper and in new directions. Soon, hopefully beginning in 2010, certainly in the next few years, our economic downturn will swing back in the other direction. The economy will grow, our clients will grow, our companies will grow. The quiet reinvention so many small businesses have done in 2009 will position us well to reap all the benefits of the next boom time.

You Can’t Have Success Without Innovation – and Failure

I recently spoke with Karl Roche at IBM about social media and internal communications. Here are a few thoughts that emerged from our discussion.

  1. Social media is about letting employees consume information in the way they want. There’s not one tool that will work for every employee, and not everyone has to be using a tool for it to be successful. Different groups within a business will have different needs, so listen to employees, and then offer them tools that provide a solution. It all comes down to enabling employees and making it easy for them to get the information they want on their terms.
  2. You can’t have success without innovation—and failure. If someone is having a problem, chances are other employees are too. Encourage employees to speak out on ways to improve efficiency. By giving employees a channel to voice their suggestions, you’re bound to get valuable feedback from the people who know your company’s processes best. A culture of innovation leads to success, and failure is an inevitable part of that cycle. Embrace it, and start moving forward.
  3. Employees trust information from colleagues more than via other sources. Employees place a lot of value on what they hear from coworkers. Creating an environment conducive to knowledge sharing not only builds morale, it’s transparent and trustworthy in the eyes of employees. Empowering employees and giving them the right tools is the first step towards creating this type of work environment.

Companies that are investing time and energy in their employees are growing the business and creating an employer-of-choice atmosphere. As the recession ends and businesses begin hiring again, companies who are seen investing in employees during the down times will be the most attractive to top talent down the road.

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You can also follow Karl on Twitter

Dialing Down Social Media

I recently had a chance to speak with Alan Richardson, a Digital Communication consultant with Ibis Communications who I was able to connect with through our LinkedIn group for social media for internal communications. Here are a few takeaways from our conversation:

  1. Sometimes you have to dial down the social media language. It’s a funny thing that when you suggest a new strategy for engaging employees, improving collaboration and facilitating knowledge-sharing in an organization, people are often quick to jump onboard. But mentioning “social media” can be an instant turnoff for some in leadership who immediately think, “Social media is just Facebook, and that’s not productive for our organization.” Although there are some people who will get it, for others, it may be better to shape the argument in a different way. Start with the business benefits, and from there lay out the tools. Instead of using the term “social media,” you may want to use other language, like collaborative technologies.
  2. Just like with any other channel, social media participants will fall back on familiar structures. One of the beautiful things about social media is the way it enables conversations to flow freely from top to bottom, bottom to top and side-to-side. Gen Y often sees social media as a way to level the playing field and have their voice heard, but once the system is in place, you’ll often find that communications revert to a typical hierarchy where leaders emerge from the group.
  3. Audio is an undervalued resource. Alan recently wrote a blog on this topic, which I’d recommend for more information. Online gamers have embraced audio more than any other group, mainly because it’s easy and convenient. There are a number of technologies out there (often inexpensive) that allow people to sign in and join the conversation. It can be very empowering to employees to know that they can passively “listen in” on a conversation, but also ask questions to the group. Simply put, chatting builds a sense of community, and that can be invaluable to an organization with employees spread out over multiple locations. (Just be sure not to mention social media and gaming when you pitch this idea to management.)
Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Can You Cut Your Payroll and Still Keep Employees Happy?

Most small businesses have already done some belt tightening this year. We’ve trimmed dead wood, become a more lean machine, and every other metaphor you can apply to spending less money. Still, when we see our final projections of where our year-end financials will end up, we might  wonder if we should cut a little more.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, wrote in the New York Times this weekend about a creative approach to cutting costs by trading employees money for time. She cites the example of KMPG, the giant accounting firm, and their solution to cutting payroll costs without losing star talent. They presented 11,000 employees with a Chinese menu of choices: work a four-day week and take a 20% pay reduction; take a short sabbatical while earning 30 percent of their base salary; both of those options; or neither of those options, retaining their regular salary for their standard work week. Over 80% of them chose one of the flex options.

Hewlett points out that because KPMG positioned these options as “a strategic response to the downturn, rather than a ‘benefit’ for working mothers, it has gone some distance to legitimizing flex time. Taking this option has become an honored choice — a way to save jobs. As a result, overloaded men as well as overloaded women have felt free to vary their schedules.”

I’ve seen one small company try a flawed version of this plan with disastrous results. Faced with the need to reduce payroll and loathe to eliminate jobs, the business owner asked everyone in the company to take a 15 percent pay cut, assuring them that she was taking the same reduction in salary. She hoped they would see this as a good way to help all their coworkers keep their jobs.

It didn’t work that way. Morale plummeted and some of her best talent jumped ship. Months later, when she was able to reinstate full salaries, she didn’t score any points with her staff because the damage was already done.

The crucial elements of cutting payroll while retaining employees are 1) giving them something back, i.e. time, in exchange for giving up some of their salary, and 2) giving them the choice of making that trade or not. Asking employees to help suck up your losses by getting paid less for the same work week is only going to hurt the company in the long run.

The thing about being an entrepreneur is that you have the potential to make a lot of money in good years. You also have the potential to lose money in the bad ones. We all willingly take that risk, but it’s not fair to expect our employees to share in the down side. On the other hand, in 2010 or 2011, when we see year-end projections that show us closing the year with gobs of money, we’ll benefit nicely from the upside of that risk-reward ratio.

Nobody Wants to Talk About Tampons

I came across this case study, and it’s too good not to share. Except that it is about tampons, and that’s sort of a taboo subject, even for consumers of the product.

This Procter and Gamble case study is a little different from other case studies that I usually blog about because this example of social media is external-facing. But, I’m going to argue that engaged workforces think up the best ideas for engaging consumers.

And P&G is consistently voted one of the best places to work for. They engage employees in many different ways, including a profit-sharing plan, which is the oldest such plan in the country (122 years). Profit-sharing, by the way, is a re-emerging trend for creating employee ownership – financially and mentally.

Another interesting note (and you might know a P&G fanatic yourself), I actually have a business colleague who is a shareholder and very vocal advocate for the P&G brand as a whole. He keeps a list of the company’s brands in his wallet so he can refer to it when shopping. He’s fond of pointing out to people when a P&G brand is an option.

It’s all about them. Considering P&G spends billions of dollars on advertising, it’s a bit surprising that they were slow-adapters to social media. Maybe that’s because they were spending all their time focusing on people, and knew their people would eventually do the right thing.

But, anyway, they realized that the mind of the consumer is wired differently than from even five years (or one year) ago. Consumers don’t want to hear about you when you think it’s time to tell them something. They want to talk about themselves, and they want you to talk about them. It’s all about them. Thus, the rise of social media, when you think about it.

This can be tough for brands. And, rightfully so. Communicators have spent their lifetimes telling people why they should care. Now that’s so yesterday. Still, even when a brand successfully engages people – consumers or employees – once they’ve got your attention, it’s easy to slip back into sell mode.

Help me help you. But social media is about helping, not selling. Although the more you help, the more you sell. P&G has rolled out this theory in a number of ways, but probably the most effective way is talking to 13 year old girls about tampons. P&G realized that they needed to engage the next wave of consumers: prepubescent girls. Girls that would perhaps buy their product at the onset of puberty and develop a loyalty to that product for 30 to 40 years. Nobody likes to talk about tampons. Girls REALLY don’t like to talk about puberty, let alone tampons.

Marketing to females and Gen Z? Perfect. It’s niche layered upon niche layered upon niche marketing. P&G developed an interactive website called beinggirl.com. Check it out. You don’t have to be a girl to recognize that it is brilliant. The website is not branded with or pushing the sale of feminine hygiene products. It invites girls to talk with each other (not with the brand) about certain challenges they are facing and get advice from Dr. Iris (a woman and a mother), whether it be questions about their changing bodies, or where to find the best soccer cleats. Thousands of girls have commented about any number of angsty teenage things. They have a voice. They feel heard. They can thank Tampax for that.

Do you see $ signs? You can’t argue with success. Of course, P&G didn’t do all of this just to be nice.  The goal of the site is to sell P&G feminine hygiene products, and they succeeded. The site drove sales four times higher than traditional advertising.

Congrats to the P&G team. Job well done.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Online Or In Person: Don’t Make It All About You

When we talk about social media at Tribe, one of our strongest recommendations is to make sure you don’t talk about yourself too much. We encourage people to make comments on other people’s updates and blogs, to retweet or post about others’ work, to spend some time promoting others. If it’s all about you all the time, you’ll wear people out. Even more importantly, you’ll be missing an opportunity to create a connection and build a relationship.

Same thing applies to actual face-to-face networking. I had lunch today with someone referred to me by an old neighbor. He recently moved from San Francisco to Atlanta and his work has some overlap with ours, so she thought I might be able to connect him with some people in town he’d like to know. (I’m not naming any names, but Michael, you know who you are.)

This guy is filled with energy and ideas and plans. Over our Flip burgers and Cokes, he talked about innovation and change and shaking things up. He talked about a major conference he’s planning. He talked about his speaking career. He talked and talked and talked.

At the end of our lunch, I told him I was going to give him some unsolicited advice. (My business partner said, fairly loudly, she claims, “Don’t do it.” I didn’t hear her, but I’m not sure that would have stopped me anyway.)

I will introduce you to a few people I think you’d enjoy knowing, I told him, but you have to promise to let them talk about themselves a little. I pointed out that we’d been at lunch for over an hour and he had not asked either of us one question. Not about our company, not about either of us personally, not even about where we managed to find a parking place.

Easy mistake. One I’m sure I’ve made myself. But driving back to the office, it struck me once again. Courtesy is courtesy, whether you’re online or sitting across the table from someone. You have to flip the focus back to the other person once in awhile. Like your mother always told you, it’s important to be a good listener.

Catch Up with Gen Y in Their Own Space

When you’re recruiting, developing or leading Gen Y, it’s important to recognize that they work a lot differently than you, and their way is no better or no worse. 

OK, so Gen Y loves technology. I don’t believe that’s a bad thing. Rather, I think it’s wonderful that they’ve found a way to create communities that support their life and work and interests. Besides, being good at technology doesn’t make them bad at other sorts of interaction. But their younger age does often mean that some Gen Ys won’t initially excel at running meetings or dealing with conflict face-to-face. Of course, there are many Gen Xers and Boomers who also find one-to-one in-person communications challenging.

I’ve heard some Boomers say that Gen Y hides behind social media. The truth is that there is no hiding – for anyone – in social media. The truth will find you out. And, Gen Y should get credit for being so accessible and open with their views, hopes and dreams on the world wide web. They should be more scared than they are, but they’ve embraced social media with arms wide open.

If you’re truly interested in connecting with this generation, you might have to meet them half way. Try using the tools that Gen Y prefers – you’ll be one step closer to becoming an employer of choice. Sure, you can think, “They should change and do it like I do,” but that’s a rather unenlightened way to operate in a workplace that likes coaches more than dictators.

Plus, the hard truth is that Gen Y is also your future consumer. We’re going to be forced to communicate in the way that consumers want to receive information. That consumer is going to be Gen Y. And they are going to expect the same tools they use in their personal lives to be present while working or shopping.

Gen Y lives and breathes on social networks. They’re so in tune with social media that they don’t even realize they’re using it. They certainly don’t say, “I use social media.” For comparison, do you say, “I watch traditional forms of advertising on TV?” no, you say, “I watched ‘Mad Men,’” and don’t even mention the commercials.

In our research with college students, they often denied using social networks (except for Match.com or e-Harmony), but in their next breath they’d tell us that they’re already using each of The Big Three (LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter).

In Their Own Words:

“I’ve used Facebook to research what would make me a better candidate for hire at a particular company.”

“I actually belong to all three of those networks. I have a LinkedIn page just so I can keep contact with some of the professional people I’ve worked with in the past, especially with the position I have now. I also have Twitter, but that’s mainly just for my fun to keep in touch with my friends. I don’t really use that as another social networking company. And then Facebook’s the same thing. I just use it for my friends and family.”

“Yes. I do have a LinkedIn account, which is incredibly important for Washington, DC. I do use Twitter a lot personally, but also to an extent I use it to report news, to get out the word about certain issues. And Facebook for sure is probably the biggest thing I use because it’s the best way to reach students, which is my job.”

What are your thoughts about harnessing the enormous talent Gen Y brings to the table, not only regarding technology but also their inclination and success in building communities in the virtual world?

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

A Book For Christmas Elves, Created Overnight

Have you seen these Christmas elves? I think the Magic Elf craze originated in the Southeast several years ago, but has grown in popularity and geography since. They’re sort of rag-doll like elves that visit each year during the holiday season and play pranks each night until Christmas Eve, when they return to the North Pole with Santa.

My son’s elf is named Cameron. A friend of his got an elf named Mansfield. My nieces’ elves are Colette and Megan. Some kids from our church have an elf that arrived with the unfortunate name of Enus. Each elf has his or her own personality, and the kids’ bound out of bed each morning to see what those nutty elves have been up to while the rest of the house was asleep.

That’s all very magical for the kids, but for the parents, it’s hard work. Night after night, you have to come up with trick after trick after trick. Often, I find myself heading upstairs for bed when I suddenly remember I haven’t done the elf. My sister has been known to pitch hers out the back door when she’s particularly tired, and then tell the girls the next morning that the elves must have wanted to play in the backyard. Wouldn’t it make things easier if parents had a whole bunch of tricks all figured out ahead of time?

Today we launched an e-book called “50 Elf Tricks: The Busy Parent’s Shortcut to Christmas Elf Magic.” Actually, Tribe is not really in the business of creating content for kids; Most of our clients are more the Fortune 500-type. But we have a policy of looking for where we can help, and this seemed, in its own small way, like something we could do to help.

Each of the 50 tricks includes a rhyming note for the elf to sign, explaining his or her tricks that range from leaving a trail of baby carrots to lure reindeer inside to a special shaving cream message written in shaving cream on the bathroom mirror. There are quick and easy tricks for nights when parents are particularly exhausted and more meaningful tricks that encourage the spirit of giving — or even good habits, like teeth brushing.

The e-book is $9.95 at the site we created for it (www.elfideas.com) and 50% goes to Santa. We’ll be able to donate half of each purchase price to the Emmaus House Christmas program, where Santa Claus will hand out gifts to over 700 kids who otherwise might not have much magic in their holiday.

This is one of the things I love most about owning a small company. You can think something up and make it happen. I had the idea driving home last Tuesday and a week later, the e-book is written and art directed and for sale on the worldwide web. So fast, it can be almost like having elves at work during the night.

5 Reasons Your Company Needs a Leadership Blog

Why have so many national and global companies launched internal-facing blogs? Because it’s one of the most cost-effective methods of building employees’ trust in management. Here are five reasons to consider a leadership blog:

1. It allows the CEO to walk the halls, electronically. In large companies, most employees have little chance of bumping into the CEO. If you have offices in different cities or countries, plants or warehouses, shipping facilities or retail units, a leadership blog can be a powerful way to help employees feel some connection to the person or people at the top.

2. Communication from the top builds trust in the ranks. Employees report they want more communication from the CEO, even if the news is not good news, and even when management doesn’t have all the answers. This is not about giving away the secret formula; it’s a glimpse of the day-to-day challenges and successes.

3. Engaging employees can help build the business. A leadership blog helps employees understand how they fit into the big picture, and how their role can contribute to company growth. If employees know the CEO has a vision for improved customer experience, for instance, even cleaning the rest room becomes an important contribution towards that goal.

4. It can help the company get ready for business to get better. Now that the initial shock of the recession is behind us, as well as a widespread layoffs and cost cutting, employees are left wondering what’s next. Are there ways the company has been reinvented during these tough times? Is the company better able to compete in the future after trimming some dead wood? How can employees and departments prepare now for the growth we all hope is ahead? Reading even casual mentions of the CEO’s vision for the future can rally the employees’ support for leadership.

5. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Some CEOs, like David Novak of Yum! Brands, choose to blog daily, off the cuff and usually from the road, sometimes with photos of employees he meets in far-flung company locations. Others work with an agency to develop an editorial calendar and ghost write blog posts, based on periodic interviews with the CEO. A leadership blog doesn’t require costly photography or print runs; it can operate with minimal involvement from internal staff; and the time and money spent is primarily on creating content, not ushering communications materials through complex production processes.

A couple of final thoughts:

Your CEO doesn’t have to a natural communicator or an extrovert to excel at engaging with employees through this channel. A blog is actually the perfect solution for someone who doesn’t have those “star” qualities. Blogs are all about authenticity anyway, and what employees are looking for in a CEO blog is the ability to connect with their leader and understand his/her vision for moving forward.

If your CEO won’t embrace this channel, look for another senior manager who is interested in filling this role for employees.

Measuring Success in Social Media

Measuring the effectiveness of social media can be challenging, particularly from an internal communications perspective. The issues you measure internally – like trust in leadership, employee morale and productive collaboration – aren’t easy to track or interpret. Of course, this problem isn’t limited to the social media channel. How do you measure the effectiveness of a culture book, for instance? I remember working on the corporate magazine for a few different brands, and we gauged a lot of things by letters from the audience. When print was the primary channel for communications, leadership was often happy if they got any feedback at all.

In fact, in some ways, social media makes measurement easier, not harder. Now that communications are “out” and engagement is “in,” the comments just keep on coming.

So how do you tell if what you’re doing is working? There are a lot of ways to crack a nut, and it can be as hard or as easy as you want it to be. Here’s a high-level approach for getting a read on the effectiveness of your project or initiative. It’s not the whole answer, but it’s a starting point. This analysis is both quantitative and qualitative and focuses on three key areas:

1)    Employee perception of your social media campaign

2)    Its effectiveness for the communications team

3)    Its impact on the business as a whole

For employees, the three main factors to consider are how trustworthy they feel the information is, ease of use and functionality. Regularly poll employees and get feedback, and then implement those changes. Testimonials will be the key for measuring employee perceptions.

For the communications team, the focus will be slightly different. How many employees does your social media campaign reach, especially compared with other channels? Take a look at your posts and see which are getting the best response and why. Again, this will have a strong qualitative element.

Finally, examine how social media for internal communications benefits the business as a whole. Be sure to draw from the numbers here: site traffic, page views and time spent at the site. Fortunately, nearly all of the tools provide basic metrics. Also, if you were able to save money by not doing a printed piece, be sure to count those hard cost savings.

Once you have a better idea of the impact social media is having, let’s frame that against:

1)    The cost of your campaign (which will generally be low); and

2)    The hours that you put in (probably not so low)

A logical next step would be to then compare those results against your other communications channels.

Make the numbers your friend. Communicators who are successful in obtaining buy-in for new initiatives usually come to the table with a plan for measurement. The recession has ushered in a new era of “working smart,” and it’s doubtful that budgets will increase back to former levels anytime soon. Decision makers will be less afraid to give you the go-ahead if they can visualize success, and understanding the numbers are a big part of that.

What are your thoughts?