Other Voices: A Discussion with Michael Pranikoff of PR Newswire on B2B Digital Communications

Michael Pranikoff (@mpranikoff) and I met a few years at a PR Newswire event when I participated on a panel he moderated about social media (NOTE: Full disclosure, I am a client of PR Newswire). Since then, he and I have remained in close contact and he is one of my main resources for digital thought leadership. With so many changes happening in the past five years, and so many more on the horizon, he agreed to answer a few questions and participate in a discussion for B2B Voices. As the Global Director, Emerging Media, Pranikoff is constantly on the move consulting with clients and I am indebted for his time. Our Q&A follows, which I hope you find useful, and by all means please add your questions for him in the comments.

Q: You’ve been at PR Newswire since 1998. I won’t ask you if the newswire is dead, but because of services like Twitter how is the newswire evolving?

A: This is a great question.  I personally don’t believe that any one channel of communications trumps another form of communications.  There are different audiences for each channel – which is probably why there are so many channels on the television today.   However, not all channels are created equal.  The newswire itself is just one of many channels that are out there, but it’s a channel that has predominately been used and viewed as one of the most trusted sources that are out there.

We’ve all been witnesses to countless hoaxes that go across Twitter and other social channels that have little or no vetting process.  I’m not saying that the newswire industry has never been susceptible to a hoax before, but there are multiple security steps that are taken to protect the integrity of the content that is syndicated over PR Newswire.   Trust is a very important aspect that we try to protect with our clients everyday – our clients that use the wire as a channel to officially communicate and syndicate their content; and our clients such as news organizations, bloggers and search engines that use, take and index our content for audiences.

Twitter is still a very valuable channel and we are now using Twitter (and Weibo in mainland China) to help the content of our clients be more accessible than ever before by their current and new audiences.   If you are asking if Twitter will replace the newswire, I don’t believe so – just as Television didn’t kill radio.  Will it change the way we operate…it already has.  New channels afford new opportunities to reach new audiences.

Q: Our focus on this blog is B2B communications. What challenges have you found that B2B companies experience that B2C companies have mastered?

A: B2B companies have a unique position in trying to communicate their messages and engage their audiences.  Social channels can be a big challenge.  For instance, a semiconductor company can rarely use a Facebook page to successfully run contests that get thousands of entries; ask audiences to create tons of content and post; and even use a social network to distribute coupons that are going to have clients flocking to purchase their products.   It’s also hard, but not impossible, for a B2B company to have and exhibit personality with their brand.  So, sometimes B2B content can come off as stuffy.

B2B companies have to work harder to successfully use their channels and show the ROI of those channels.  However, I don’t think that B2B companies even need to use all the same channels as B2C companies.  Sometimes, they can spend less time worrying about likes and fans and spend more time in creating content that is really going to lead to a greater and deeper engagement and opportunity than a lot of B2C companies can.   B2C companies can sometimes be broad with their messaging, the more focused that a B2B company can be with their content, the better.

Q: And on the flip side to that question, what have B2B companies done well that B2C companies should pay attention to?

A: B2B companies have some advantages over B2C companies, and that is the ability to create very focused content and engage audiences in a very different way than B2C companies can.  For instance, B2B companies can engage their audiences deeper with content such as case studies and white papers – which many B2C companies have a hard time doing.

However, today we are seeing B2B companies use some of the tactics that were thought to be the domain for B2C companies – such as creating really involved and engaged communities.  This is something that B2B companies can have an advantage with because they are trying to create authority around a topic – and that topic tends to have something to do with a profession.  Most people today are spending a good 8-10 hours a day invested in their jobs / profession.  We are eager for information and content that will help us to achieve more.  B2B companies like Dell, IBM, Microsoft and others are creating very focused Communities that are engaging audiences at levels that many never thought about.  There are even very specially focused and thriving communities such as one for a specialized profession such as an Oncology Nurse (www.theonc.org).

B2B companies are increasingly embracing principles around Content Marketing to help reach and engage current and new audiences.  While good content is not easy or cheap to create, it’s much more cost effective and less expensive than broad based advertising that so many B2C companies feel forced to engage in with increasingly smaller returns for dollars spent.

Q: We are clearly moving from an analog to a digital world. This means as communicators we have the opportunity to create our own content. How has this shift made its way into the minds of communicators?

A: This is definitely true.  However, I would say that the paradigm of POEMS (Paid, Owned, Earned, Media…and Shares) is shifting and blurring.   Blending the techniques today is achieving greater results than relying on one form alone for all messaging.  It’s also blurring the way the marketing, advertising, public relations and investor relations teams are working.  Today, I think it’s figuring out what the overarching messaging is about, and then using the different disciplines / channels in the organization to nuance the message for different audiences, all while still staying true to the message.

The other changing aspect from analog to digital is the speed in which we have to operate and communicate.  It seems as if we are always on.  If that is true, then listening is more important than ever and we have to be nimble and quick in our organizations to be able to truly embrace the ideas around Agile Engagement.  The ability to quickly listen, analyze, create or curate new messages, target that message, promote and syndicate and then directly engage and interact with our audiences is critical.  Then the process starts all over again while we analyze what worked, what didn’t work and find ways to improve the process and message is truly what makes embracing the digital and agile process.

Q: What have you noticed from your work outside of the US? Do services like Weibo and RenRen matter more and if so how?

A: Outside the US, there are many markets where different social networks thrive – mainland China is not the only place, but probably the place where this plays out most because of access.   In many places outside of the US, I have noticed a much quicker pace to embrace mobile.  However, it’s not always on a mobile device like a smart phone or iPad.  For instance, in Africa, the feature phone is still alive and well and giving access to information and commerce like never before.

Now, as many differences as there are in places around the world in how messages are communicated, one thing that I have found still matters for B2B companies is making sure that their content can be easily found by their audiences.  Some like to say that search is dying, but I believe that search is stronger and more important than ever.  While Google is not number one everywhere in the world – most of the world searches using Google. Therefore the importance of making sure that our content is easily searchable plays a big importance for B2B companies and how they are communicating.   Even in China where Baidu rules, Google is still the number one search engine for the business community (at least that’s what I found when I was visiting China earlier this year).

One thing to note, Weibo is not a service on its own.  A Weibo is basically the term for Microblog and within mainland China, there are four major Weibo services (Sina, Sohu, Tencent also known as QQ or Qzone, and NetEase) vs. just the one Twitter Microblog services in the US (although within corporate America it could be said that there are internal competitors such as Yammer and Salesforce Chatter).

Q: New services like Instagram and Pinterest are making digital media a very “image centric” medium. How have B2B companies grasped this concept?

A: One thing that we have known for a long time at PR Newswire is that when an image or any multimedia is distributed with a release, the release gets more views and more engagement on average.  The push for “image centric” content is forcing companies to think more about how they will visualize a message.  This is not always easy to do right.

Services like Instagram and Pinterest can be a lot of fun.  However, I am not convinced that these will be very successful channels for B2B Companies.  For one thing, I have not seen data yet that really shows that these channels are helping to make the images shared on them more search friendly.  I’m not a naysayer and I do think these channels can be successful for some, but I don’t believe that most B2B companies are going to find these channels to be very successful channels in leading to business.

Companies should embrace the idea that they have lot of great data and that finding ways to visualize this data can be successful in helping to find and engage new audiences. There has been a deeper push for companies to use infographics, but many companies have a hard time doing this.  My advice to companies is to keep it simple and try to not cover more than 1-3 distinct data points in an infographic.  I have seen too many infographics suffer from too much data – just like a press release that is trying to cover too many topics.  I like to embrace the KISS principle – Keep It Short & Simple (however, some people like Keep It Simple Stupid).

Q: In closing, offer us some words of wisdom that we as communicators need to think about.

A: My final thoughts are that we need to think about our content online today like laying breadcrumbs down to help our users and audience to follow a path.  Be directive with content and let people know where they are supposed to go next.  Finally, connect your channels together to help cross promote your content.  We don’t need to use every channel in the world, just those channels in which we know is going to help our audiences find our information and the path to where they should be going next.