As a trained journalist and former newspaper reporter, I’m conditioned to look and listen for details. It’s a skill that obviously comes in handy when you are doing marketing work. But you may have noticed that a lot of marketing and public relations content is oddly free of details. Companies would rather claim to be a “leader,” to offer “comprehensive solutions,” and tout their “fast-growing” status than provide information that would prove (or possibly disprove) these claims. This is not an accident, nor is it an unconscious action by corporate marketers. A tension exists between peoples’ natural curiosity and the desire on the part of businesses to keep details and specifics to themselves.
In fact, a great deal of business – and potential profit – revolves around the uneven distribution of information. Stocks move up and down on the basis of mere rumors and speculation. Consumers buy products not knowing exactly what’s in them, where they are made, and what it really cost the company to make them. Businesses have been known to tell serious falsehoods to protect their interests.
Until the advent of the Internet, businesses had the upper hand in the battle between information sharing and secrecy. But that has now changed. Twenty years after the World Wide Web was born, search engines and users have been conditioned to reward those who provide fresh and specific information.
While we have certainly seen many anecdotal examples of how raising your profile can be good for business, I would argue that the business community as a whole is still quite divided on whether a heightened online presence actually translates into sales, profits and economic power – and whether it is worth the cost in time, money and the perceived loss of a competitive information advantage.
Nevertheless, as marketers, we really have no choice but to side with those who want more details. We make our jobs impossibly harder if we hold back this information, especially if we have competitors who aren’t holding back. On the other hand, our own jobs and economic security could be at risk if we spill too much. Knowledge really is power, and our bosses know it.
What’s a marketer to do? First off, we must be attuned to this reality and be very sensitive to what is confidential and proprietary to our businesses. If we are unsure, we must triple-check before hitting “send” or posting on the Web. It’ll be way too late after.
Then, we must find ways to satisfy the demand for details, and that’s again where my journalism training comes in and helps me – and can certainly help you too.
Remember, I didn’t say Internet users were insisting that we strip ourselves bare and reveal, say, the secret formula for Coca-Cola. What we have to do is find a balance between being vague to protect competitive secrets and disclosing too much. And you can do that by arming yourself with details that will satisfy curiosity without divulging trade secrets.
What are some examples of the types of specifics you can offer? Here are some ideas:
- Metrics. Providing some numbers is much better than providing none. And all businesses have figures they can share. You can disclose sales growth rate without disclosing total sales. You can disclose how many stores you have, but not how many you are planning to build in the future.
- Personalities. Every company has a story, and driven business leaders often have inspiring and interesting stories. Share details about the personality of your company that put it in a good light and shed light on how business gets done.
- Features. Terms such as “leading” and “comprehensive” are rightly ridiculed for being unspecific. Instead, share detailed information about the features and benefits that users or consumers can expect, how your product works, and how it compares to others. Tip: Don’t lard your features with more unspecific language. Example: Talk about a computer with a 2.6 GHz processor, not an “industry-leading” processor.
- The 5Ws. Every journalist knows the 5Ws by heart: Who, What, When, Where and Why. Keep these questions top-of-mind and try to provide as much of this information as possible.
I know that this can be adjustment. It can be uncomfortable. Its only saving grace is that it is necessary to succeed.