Envelopes—Your “Get Opened” Tool.

You have a lot of direct mail formats available—postcards, self-mailers, dimensional mailers and, of course, the good old envelope. Many factors from budget and objective to the nature of your offer and audience enter into your format decision. So let’s begin our discussion with when you should use an envelope package.

Four Reasons to Choose Envelope Packages.

The first and most obvious is that envelopes provide an ideal solution when your offer requires more space for multiple components such as a cover letter, brochure, buckslip and reply envelope. After all, something has to keep the components from falling on the ground.

Second, envelopes better accommodate the fact that people buy in different ways. The letter-brochure combo provides alternate ways of presenting information—one more verbal and fact oriented, the other more visual.

Third, real people send things to real people in envelopes. Recipients feel more catered to when they receive an envelope package—especially a personalized one—and that’s essential in today’s marketplace.

Fourth, envelopes tend to look less promotional than postcards and self-mailers, so they have the ability to lift you above the marketing fray with a classier presentation.

Then There’s the Offer Thing.

Some types of offers just beg for an envelope. After analyzing lots of tests and studies, most direct marketing authorities consider envelopes more effective for these types of offers:

  • Financial products—loans, credit cards, securities, insurance
  • Magazine and newspaper subscriptions
  • Continuity/membership clubs
  • Charitable solicitations
  • Professional services
  • High-ticket consumer goods
  • Technology products
  • Telephone services

But perhaps the most important and often overlooked reason to use an envelope is that it can contain a letter. A real, honest-to-goodness personal letter. Oh, I know we don’t write so many of them anymore, but that’s not because they don’t work.

If fact, letters are incredibly powerful either as a standalone component or as part of a package. Many direct mail authorities still believe that a letter is the most important single element in a direct mail package. And many tests show that letters can hold their own or even exceed the performance of postcards and self-mailers.

Consider including a letter when your message needs to:

  • Come from one person by name.
  • Be addressed to an individual by name.
  • Requires added credibility or confidentiality.

And the more personalized you can make the content, the higher the letter’s impact will be.

Sealing It Up.

Well, I suppose I digressed a bit from envelopes. But perhaps it highlights the most important point of all. Nothing really stands alone in marketing. We talk about integrated media while sometimes forgetting the integrated relationship of components within a single element like a direct mail package.

Now about that envelope….

By Larry Bauer

Want Expert Advice?

MondoVox Creative Group can help you develop direct mail packages that result in sales. For more information, email Julia Moran Martz.

You can connect with Julia Moran Martz on LinkedIn. Or follow her on Twitter.

Do’s and Don’ts of Envelopes.

Creating effective envelopes doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of money. To the contrary, it means understanding your audience and offer and then creating an appropriate fit. Here’s how to ensure that recipients welcome your next envelope package.

Do

  • Ensure your envelope is at least ¼” larger than the inserts.
  • Put your company name on the envelope if you’re confident it will cause a positive reaction from recipients—otherwise leave it off.
  • Match images, graphics and copy appropriately to your audience.
  • Use postage stamps if possible, especially for small mailings or anything that requires a personal touch.
  • Use metered mail as a second choice, but avoid the dreaded indicia—studies show that Fortune 500 companies route 30% of Standard Mail to the wastebasket immediately.
  • Personalize—that can mean anything from variable-data messaging to using a legible script font or actual handwriting—non-profits read this again.
  • Include teaser copy that is compelling, intriguing and invites curiosity.
  • Test envelope color, size, style and paper—differences might attract people who pitched a mailing before.
  • Consider an enclosure that creates an envelope lump—people can’t resist them, but be aware that it will add to postage costs.
  • Play the angles—an angled teaser line or even a slightly angled stamp can make your envelope get noticed.

Don’t

  • Use form letter or bill formats—they typically either get tossed or put with the bills.
  • Use a window envelope—possible exceptions are if it’s the only way to get killer personalization inside or if it’s a full view that shows a compelling graphic.
  • Put your offer on the envelope—especially to a cold list.
  • Underestimate the power of envelope tone—official, fun, etc.
  • Neglect to plan well in advance if you want to use a specialty envelope—custom envelopes take longer to produce.
  • Address your B2B mail to generic titles if at all possible—nothing screams mass mail louder than generics.
  • Skimp on any element of address accuracy—Cathy with a “C” might tune you out in a heartbeat if you spell her name with a “K.”
  • Dupe recipients into thinking your envelope contains something it doesn’t—tone needs to fit the actual contents.
  • Use statements like “Open Immediately”—see above.
  • Forget to order 5–10% more envelopes than you need—you’ll likely lose some in setup.
  • Time your mail to arrive on Monday, the heaviest mail day of the week—aim for Tuesday, the lightest day, or Wednesday, the second lightest.

By Larry Bauer

mb-2010-do-dont-v22bMissed Getting Your Copy of The Little Book of Marketing Do’s & Don’ts? Not to worry. We’ve made digital versions available via SlideShare. The Little Book of Marketing Do’s & Don’ts is a collection of the most viewed “Do’s & Don’ts” published by our MondoBeat newsletter including:

  • Taglines
  • Print Advertising
  • Referrals
  • Trade Shows
  • Corporate Brochures
  • Direct Mail
  • Thought Leadership
  • White Papers

Simply visit our SlideShare page to download your complimentary copy.

The Art of the Envelope Tease.

One of the biggest mistakes designers can make is ignoring the envelope that contains their client’s direct mail components. Envelopes are the key tool that determines whether your direct mail gets opened or gets ditched.

Design Tips for Creating Intriguing Envelopes for Your Direct Mail Campaign.

  • Vary the size: think outside of the standard #10 envelope. Look at oversized envelopes or even undersized. Anything to break out of the normal in-box clutter.
  • Use color: consider envelopes that reflect your brand’s primary color or consider anything that isn’t white, yet fits your offer. White envelopes tend to blend in with everything else in the recipient’s mailbox. Consult your designer or printer for interesting textures and colors.
  • Print a teaser message on the envelope: the operative word here is ‘teaser.’ There’s no rule that says you need to give it all away up front. Leave a little something to reward them for opening. Keep the message enticing.
  • Consider using a translucent or clear envelope: if your budget allows, there are a myriad of clear and translucent options. Choices include vellum, glassine and polybag-type envelopes. But be cautious when sourcing vellum as not all are crack resistant. Consult with your printer for vellum options that minimize cracking. And also don’t assume that polybag-type envelopes are only available in crystal clear. There are many exciting color choices that ignite the imagination. ClearBags has a great online resource to get your creative juices flowing, but do work you’re your printer for larger quantities.
  • Consider the design of the interior components up front. Don’t’ just toss them in a clear envelope without thought to what will show through. Again, you may need to redesign the outward facing messages on the interior components if you’re using a clear envelope.
  • You may also consider window envelopes as an alternative to solid paper or clear poly envelopes. There are several sizes including booklet envelopes with nearly full-view windows that deliver a similar effect.

Production Considerations.

  • If going with a translucent or clear envelope, you’ll have to reconsider how you handle addressing the envelope. Depending on the color and translucency of the material, you may have to use an address label. Or you could design the backside of the inserts to contain the address info.
  • Remember what I said about vellum. While insanely cool, you must work with a good printer to spec a stock that is crack resistant.
  • Some envelopes don’t come with a sticky seal. Some glassine envelopes, for instance, may require you to use a label to close the flap. This is another opportunity for messaging.
  • While an envelope mailer will cost more to produce than a postcard, a well-designed envelope can outperform a postcard if the message is right for a closed-envelope package. The challenges are the budget, of course, and ensuring the envelope is the right vehicle for your direct mail’s desired outcome.
  • Spec converted envelopes to save money. The only drawback is that you won’t be able to print across folds or bleed off a cut edge. But a good designer can certainly work within these restrictions to save you money.

Ignore at your own peril the envelope’s ability to tease, entice, intrigue and seduce the recipient. But also remember what mom advised in your youth: don’t give it all away up front and do leave something to the imagination. Envelopes are no different. Enticing someone to open is often a matter of making a promise but only enough to generate excitement. Like wearing just the right dress on your first date. Not too much, not too little.

By Julia Moran Martz

Are You Still Mailing Your Father’s Postcards?

Postcards are more popular than ever, though many writers and designers run for cover when they hear the word. Some don’t like condensing the message into such a small space. Others dismiss them as low-end, low-value promotions for companies that can’t afford anything else.

But savvy marketers know better.

Postcards can be performance powerhouses when done right. In fact, they sometimes do remarkably well even when done poorly. One of the reasons they continue to work is that postcards come “pre-opened.” There’s no decision to make. The offer is right in front of you. Postcards draw immediate attention and give you more than a fighting chance to entice the prospect even when you’re unknown.

Perfect for today’s over-messaged marketplace.

Understanding Postcard Basics.

Although our intent is to take the form to its highest level, there are four postcard basics that you need to get right no matter what technology you integrate into your campaigns:

  1. Attention-demanding Headline. You only get a few seconds to gain attention, so make your headline big and benefit oriented.
  2. Involving Visual. Draw in the recipient by making the visual and headline work as a team. Visuals should be as large and involving as possible. Showing a product or service in action is always effective.
  3. Persuasive Copy. Maintain interest with strong, feature- and benefit-oriented copy. Since you are likely using a multi-step approach, write your copy to entice and qualify.
  4. Call to Action. Be sure to tell the recipient exactly what action to take and don’t assume anything. Direct the person to “Call toll free today for a free sample and information kit,” or whatever is the appropriate action for your program. Multiple, user-friendly options tend to work best.

Adding Some Technology Juice.

Separate your postcards from the competition by taking advantage of today’s technology.

  • Do Your Database Work. From variable data digital printing to inkjet imaging, print technology provides a lot of opportunities to personalize and customize your postcard mailings. There’s a strong likelihood that you have plenty of existing data to elevate the performance of your postcards. Start simply if you must and work your way up, but do use your data. Every personalization step you take will deliver better results. Keep in mind that there’s also worthwhile demographic information you can append from outside sources while you’re building your internal database. Seek help if you need it.
  • Personalize. Get past the “name thing” quickly. It’s not that using someone’s name isn’t worthwhile—it is—but today’s variable technologies allow you to do so much more with photos, graphics and copy if you know anything at all about your target. You can create postcards that are variable in every respect with digital presses or do something as simple as offline- inkjet imaging a store location map when you’re doing the addressing. You can also create postcards with personalized URLs (pURLs) that connect recipients to a personal landing page where they typically receive an incentive for their effort. Many times there are additional offers beyond the original promise, such as an opt-in newsletter or club membership, available at the personal landing page. Besides the personalization effect, the big benefit of pURLs is that they provide a reliable method for tracking postcard recipients who went online as a result of the promotion, whether or not they took advantage of the offer.
  • Involve. Postcards can now be more involving than ever. QR Codes, which are hotter than hot, are two-dimensional barcodes that enable smartphone users equipped with the correct reader software to scan the code. This causes the phone’s browser to launch and redirect to the programmed URL. A real estate company, for example, could offer a property on the postcard and the QR code might take the recipient to a video tour of the home. But don’t dismiss other involvement devices such as scratch-offs, repositionable notes and other proven techniques.

The bottom line is that postcards not only work, but also are evolving tools that can achieve virtually any level of marketing sophistication your program requires.

By Larry Bauer

Want Expert Advice?

MondoVox Creative Group can help you develop postcard campaigns that take advantage of today’s technology. For more information, email Julia Moran Martz.

You can connect with Julia Moran Martz on LinkedIn. Or follow her on Twitter.

Do’s and Don’ts of Postcards.

We once knew a youth soccer coach who was 10–0 in her first season and knew it was the coaching. Then she went 0–10 in her second season and knew it was the players. Consistent success depends upon bringing all the elements together. Here’s how to trounce the competition with your next postcard campaign.

Do

  • Grab attention with a bold headline—postcards have to work fast.
  • Focus on one big idea and one main point per card.
  • Emphasize what the recipient will get by taking the next step.
  • Include all the elements of a direct mail package in short form—letter, brochure and reply.
  • Use tracking identifiers to know what’s generating inquiries.
  • Include a strong, crystal clear call to action.
  • Make the card interactive with QR codes and other devices.
  • Use a personal message style over a display ad approach.
  • Increase the card size to 6” x 9” if possible—higher response rates and more marketing space usually justify the costs.
  • Approach your database work as carefully as you would any other mailing.

Don’t

  • Get spooked into ultra-short copy—the billboard notion is a myth.
  • Use technical words or jargon—this isn’t the place, if there ever is one.
  • Forget to include incentives for taking the next step.
  • Think that color and graphics will outperform personalized content—put them together for maximum results.
  • Try to make the sale on the postcard—they are multi-step marketing vehicles.
  • Use smaller than 8 pt. type anywhere on the postcard.
  • Neglect direct mail basics—get your lists, offer and creative right in that order of priority.
  • Accept any old paper—your stock selection is a visual element too.
  • Think that postcards are just for small companies—check your mailbox.
  • Settle for your office printer—ditto for “gang runs” unless elements like your logo color aren’t that critical.

By Larry Bauer

mb-2010-do-dont-v22bMissed Getting Your Copy of The Little Book of Marketing Do’s & Don’ts? Not to worry. We’ve made digital versions available via SlideShare. The Little Book of Marketing Do’s & Don’ts is a collection of the most viewed “Do’s & Don’ts” published by our MondoBeat newsletter including:

  • Taglines
  • Print Advertising
  • Referrals
  • Trade Shows
  • Corporate Brochures
  • Direct Mail
  • Thought Leadership
  • White Papers

Simply visit our SlideShare page to download your complimentary copy.

Grandiose Generalizations About Postcard Design.

Think of a postcard almost like a combination of a billboard on the highway, key messages from a brochure and a call to action from your sell sheet. You’ve got barely seconds to capture your recipient and THEN, you have to give them enough of the details to beguile them. Grab their attention like a billboard but provide follow through like a brochure—that’s the trick.

Design Generalizations for Postcards.

Remember, a generalization is just that and there will always be exceptions. Here’s my list of design tips for smart postcard designers:

  • All caps, bold, condensed and italic is likely not the most readable treatment for your hard-working headline. You must find a balance between a visually strong headline and one that’s easily read. Select a typeface that works, and don’t over embellish it. Do all this while staying true to your brand image.
  • Images should be unique and compelling IF you have them. Keep in mind that it’s not 100% necessary to have an image with your headline; a headline could be the main visual in and of itself. But if you include an image, choose one that’s not likely to be overly used in your market, or have an image shot custom for you.
  • Don’t put a strong message on a wimpy card stock. The post office’s guidelines are the minimum and are not what we recommend. The sturdier the better and not so shiny it squeaks or reflects light rather than your message. Think of this postcard as your handshake with prospects when you’re not available. Keep it firm and not too squeaky.
  • Consider a straight perforation across one end for any coupon detachment if you can’t afford a fancy die to cut the shape you want. Often, a single straight perf will be a tad cheaper. You just need to design it into your card creatively.
  • Skip the paragraphs of prose on your card and go for short-and-sweet messages. And keep the quantity of those to the bare minimum. Filling your card with FREE FREE FREE and loads of platitudinous drivel will make your key message and call to action hard to find quickly. All you do is end up in the trash sooner.
  • Respect the reader. Despite what some advertisers in the 70’s would have us believe, customers are smart and getting smarter. They learn from each other and share information online and off. So make your message/point/deal intelligent and easy to pass on in other media.
  • Don’t even think about clichés. They don’t position you as better or unique.
  • I know Larry said in his Do’s and Don’ts list to not use type smaller than 8 point. I’m going to go one better and advise you to keep it 10 points or larger. Remember, folks are reading often at arms length in their entryway when they get home from a long day at work. Lighting in entryways is often insufficient for small text.

Postcard Anatomy 101 and Gallery.

Ripon Postcard FrontFront: Capture with a compelling headline and/or visual. Don’t over do it, just get them to stop and read or take the card to their desk.

Back: Follow through with the details (But not too many. This is not the place for your legal counsel to practice writing warranties.)

Prioritize your copy by what gets read first. In roughly this order, humans see visual, read headline, captions, offer and then details. So no skimping on captions and offer copy. Get it right and make it work hard for its space.

Ripon Postcard Back

Use white space to direct the reader to what you want them to read first and second. Don’t worry about third. They may not get that far.

 

One Hit Wonders.

The cards below were designed as single-hit mailers, just weeks prior to a key trade show. They included pURLs (personalized URLs) on the back to provide landing pages specific to each recipient.

Ripon Printers Postcard Singles

Cost-saving tip: pURLs were inkjet printed on the cards after they were run on a conventional offset press. You could also use variable data printing directly on a digital press and accomplish both printing and customization simultaneously. Determining which is most cost effective for your job is a balance between quality and number of inks printed.

Stromberg Allen tri-fold postcard

The above tri-fold card was designed as a single-hit, pre-show mailer, just weeks prior to a key trade show. It included a teaser image to get them to open, and then followed through with booth number and incentive to visit during the show.

Three Times or More is a Charm.

Recchia Postcard Campaign

You can also create a series of more than the standard three cards and schedule it to run for several months. Also don’t feel pressured into doing what everyone else does: try a different colored paper stock, try illustrations instead of photography, mix it up and be different to stand out from the crowd.

And one last thing: DO schedule overlapping smaller quantity mailings of your cards so you have time to follow up between each. You are planning on following up via phone after mailing aren’t you?

By Julia Moran Martz

Design tips for enhanced comprehension.

Note: Our ongoing series of design tips will assist you in creating marketing collateral by improving comprehension, speed of reading and increase belief in your value whether you’re selling products or services to consumers or businesses.

Using good design to ensure you look professional is akin to using darts and tucks on a suit jacket for a good fit around your content. You wouldn’t show up to an important meeting with rags hanging from your shoulders. Likewise, make sure any materials that represent you are also an extension of that same level of quality.

Tip 1: Using single word spaces between sentences.

In the words of Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style, 1992:

In the nineteenth century, which was a dark and inflationary age in typography and type design, many compositors were encouraged to stuff extra space between sentences. Generations of twentieth-century typists were then taught to do the same, by hitting the spacebar twice after every period. Your typing as well as your typesetting will benefit from unlearning this quaint Victorian habit. As a general rule, no more than a single space is required after a period, a colon or any other mark of punctuation. Larger spaces (e.g., en spaces) are themselves punctuation.”

“The rule is usually altered, however, when setting classical Latin or Greek, romanized Sankrit, phonetics or other kinds of text in which sentences begin with lowercase letters. In the absence of a capital, a full en space (M/2) between sentences will generally be welcome.”


Lessons Learned from the Trenches of Social Media.

My colleague, Julia, had already plunged into social media with her successful SnarkyVegan blog. I, on the other hand, was a rookie and a skeptic at that. But as we strategized about ways to establish thought leadership for the agency, we decided that enewsletters, which would roll into blogs, would be a good starting point. The result was MondoBeat: Ideas to Improve Your Marketing Rhythm.

To say the least, one thing led to another. Strong reception to the enewsletter/blog began to pique our interest. Soon we were announcing new posts at our Twitter sites, and I began to wonder if there was any potential in our mostly dormant LinkedIn accounts.

So Julia and I got busy completing our profiles, linking feeds from our blog, posting slide presentations, connecting with colleagues and participating in groups. Along the way, I was invited to manage my college’s alumni group as well as another group. So I got to see “groups” from both the participant and manger perspectives.

What We Learned

Clearly social media is evolving and participants are evolving along with it. Here are three key findings from our experience:

1. Synergy Counts.

The more options we integrated into our social media goal of growing our thought leadership perception, the better we did. More people started to follow us on Twitter, and we connected with more and more people on LinkedIn. Both are significant drivers of readers to the blog, and LinkedIn is now our number one source of hits and page views.

Of course everyone always wants to know if you were able to monetize social media. That was not our goal—thought leadership was—but we did receive several inquiries about our services and made presentations as a result of our social media experiences.

Additionally:

  • Our customers are virtually all loyal readers of our enewsletters/blogs.
  • We found a capable subcontractor through a renewed contact made on LinkedIn and used the individual on a project.
  • The enewsletter/blog grew to the point that we are now considering offering sole sponsorship opportunities for each issue (you’ll eventually be able to judge that success for yourself).
  • We are now more knowledgeable, empathetic social media advisors to our clients—you know the old adage about the best doctor being the one who just got out of the hospital.

2. Participation Counts.

If you want to benefit from social media, you have to be willing to participate on a consistent, frequent basis. You also need to be willing to learn the rules of social media so that your participation helps, not hurts your business. And you need to set your internal social media goals and appoint someone to coordinate your social media team.

In addition to getting some professional advice, we recommend taking one of the many good social media classes available. Some even offer social media certifications. The more skillfully you employ social media, the better the results.

3. Participation Takes Time.

Don’t get caught up in the notion that social media is free. It will definitely cost you time, a valuable commodity in today’s downsized companies. We easily spend an hour to an hour-and-a-half per day on social media, and that excludes writing our enewsletter/blog posts. You may be able to—and probably should—share some of the responsibilities, but don’t start if you’re not willing to commit the time. As a point of reference, many large companies now have one or more people on staff who do nothing but monitor social media.

Finally, remember that social media is primarily for relationship and thought leadership building. It should be part of your marketing plan, but continue to leave the heavy lifting to postal mail, email, print advertising and marketing media better suited to directly generating sales and ROI.

By Larry Bauer

Want Expert Advice?

MondoVox Creative Group can help you with social media strategy through program deployment. For more information, email Julia Moran Martz.

You can connect with Julia Moran Martz on LinkedIn. Or follow her on Twitter.

Do’s and Don’ts of Social Media.

Social media participation requires your time, but it needs to be quality time. Otherwise, you can cause more harm than good. Use these tips to create relationships and thought leadership that will help build your business.

Do

  • Set a social media strategy—outline what you want to accomplish and how it is going to happen.
  • Get some formal training—you need to know everything from the tools available to social media etiquette.
  • Appoint someone to direct and monitor your efforts.
  • Learn how your respected competitors are tapping social media—research them in the major search engines.
  • Create blogs, enewsletters and other articles on your sites to bolster the number of keywords and increase your search rankings.
  • Keep taking your social media to higher levels—provide richer content, etc.
  • Remember that social media is about earning attention.
  • Help, teach, guide and be tolerant with people new to social media—keep learning yourself.
  • Get in sync with your audience.
  • Be transparent, genuine and real about you and your company.
  • Spend at least as much time listening as you do broadcasting.
  • Find creative ways to use social media with print—maybe you’re a restaurant chain that could Tweet daily lunch or dinner specials on Twitter.

Don’t

  • View social media as simply a place to hype your wares—unlearn some of your traditional marketing habits.
  • Underestimate the power of video in social media.
  • Be naïve about the time commitment to do social media right.
  • Forget that cheaters never win—trying to game the system will eventually get you busted.
  • Neglect to measure—it’s the only way to know if you’re achieving your goals.
  • Get upset about losing followers unless they’re the people you really want to target—then figure out why you’re losing them and adjust.
  • Be thin skinned or take everything that happens in your social media experience personally.
  • Think you will ever know everything about social media—it turns on a dime.
  • Participate on an inconsistent basis—frequency definitely matters in building a following.
  • Fail to add value—people won’t spend their time if they don’t receive something worthwhile in return.
  • Disrespect the community—treat others the way you want to be treated.
  • Forget to enjoy your social media experience.

MondoVox® Creative Group Client Wins Marketing Award. MondoVox® Creative Group recently created an award-winning campaign for Ripon Printers (Ripon, WI), a leading printer of catalogs, publications, manuals and soft-cover educational products. The company received the prestigious National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL) Marketing Plus™ Award. This competition acknowledges and recognizes those printing companies that have created and produced successful marketing campaigns and collateral for the self-promotion of their companies.

Ripon Printers was the sole recipient of the Gold Award in the Vertical Markets category. Entries consisted of campaigns to promote company core competencies and services specifically relevant to identified vertical markets and positioning the company as an effective market leader in these market segments.

To read the complete release, including examples of the multichannel campaign components, please visit MondoVox News.

By Larry Bauer

Hashtags as Leadership Tools in Twitter.

We all know that starting and maintaining relevant conversations with customers and prospects are key to using thought leadership to enable sales, support and brand building. Before electronic social media tools, corporate socializing occurred on the golf course, while sharing beers at the local watering hole after work—even rented suites at the Indy500 and other events enabled you to prove your mettle with VIP clients and prospects.

Many of the ways we used to participate in social business conversations also translate well to social media tools. Discovering existing conversations about your brand or product niche is as easy as eavesdropping by searching for keywords in Twitter or using Google Blog Search. Creating and leading such conversations requires a concerted effort by you and your company.

Leading the Conversation.

Tags are a type of metadata used to identify specific topics online by assigning keywords to a specific piece of information, making that information easy to find. Hashtags are a specific type of tagging used in social media that you employ to create topically oriented conversations and to follow others’ conversations on Twitter or identi.ca.

It’s a way of grouping relevant messages into conversations, similar to the idea of but much broader than corralling VIPs in an event room or networking on the golf course. Imagine no conventional boundaries, and the fact that you’re potentially conversing with 500 or even 5,000 people in a given day, week, month.

By using hashtags (and tags in general), you can establish yourself as the thought leader for a given topic by starting the conversation, interacting intelligently with others and continuing to provide information/advice/support.

If you’re going to use hashtags for leading and managing conversations about your brand, be sure to follow these tips:

  • Write a great hashtag. Hashtags like #news are not helpful. Be more effective by using tags like #BrandNameNews, #BrandLaunch or #BrandHelp and be considerate of length. Remember that it does get counted in Twitter users’ 140-character limit. AND be cautious with acronyms as there could be multiple unrelated conversations potentially using the same acronym.
  • Use = promotion. Use the hashtag religiously and appropriately whenever speaking online about the specific topic. AND use it interactively when conversing with others in social media tools.
  • Don’t spam. Don’t pick up unrelated hashtags and appropriate them as your own. Inserting hashtags about a recent earthquake is NOT ok if your tweet has nothing to do with the earthquake. This is a proven method of upsetting Twitter users and they will make their displeasure known.
  • Promote it in other analog and digital marketing tools. Land Rover developed a very successful hashtag campaign in April 2009 by using a myriad of print and online promotions to promote the hashtag on Twitter. There is a lot to learn from Land Rover’s experience, and I would encourage you to not simply copy their strategy but to view it only as a starting point.
  • Develop communication guidelines for social media in general and apply them here. Include such things as a communications tone and consider any concerns that legal may have. Make sure anyone you’ve tasked with participating in social media on behalf of your brand is trained and knowledgeable.

Dealing with Loss of Control.

When putting your own hashtag out for use in the twitterverse, you must be prepared for negative use of the tag. Remember, just because the tag originated with you doesn’t mean you own it. It’s part of the larger conversation that you can participate in but never control. The effect is akin to having conversations with people at a party where some know and love you, some know and hate you and many don’t know you at all.

This is why it’s critical to understand and ensure your brand’s integrity and value. Likewise, it’s important to have the ability to lead the conversation as a valued participant. If your brand is suffering from poor quality products/service/support, no amount of twittering or tagging will save you. But you can use social media tools as part of your plan to turn your brand around so long as you truly are taking steps to improve the problems.

If you have quality, support or deliverability issues that you’re taking steps to resolve, plan on mitigating negative use of the hashtag by:

  • Fixing your problems. Start resolving the problems that affect your brand’s quality before taking on social media. You don’t have to finish resolving your issues, but you should be well on the path to recovery before initiating that first social media conversation. You may even want to use your resolve to repair the damage as your first hashtag topic.
  • Increasing your response time and quality. Comcast is THE benchmark for response times and problem resolution via Twitter. Forget their phone support, you’ll never get through. But use Twitter and they’ve got a tech on top of the problem within five or 10 minutes.
  • Creating a human voice. Again, Comcast wins hands down. They’ve got real live technical humans monitoring Twitter conversations about their product and service. These folks are also trained to interact with customers AND solve the problem.
  • Maintaining transparency. If there’s a problem, own up to it publicly. Take a lesson from Toyota’s recent PR fiasco and own up early, take steps to resolve the problem and communicate those steps without corporate speak. You must sound authentically human. Don’t skimp on this part or you’ll get nailed to the Twitter wall quickly.

And by all means, pay attention when online. Use the opportunity to converse with large numbers of customers to both help and guide them as well as learn if there are problems or areas for improvement. If your brand is loved and respected universally, you won’t have much of a problem. However, there are always instigators in any venue. You should be prepared to encounter them with knowledge, grace and honesty.

By Julia Moran Martz