Why “mountain stage” is a better marketing-planning metaphor than “hunker down”

On Tuesday, amidst my live-blogging of the Future of Business Media Conference in the New York, I took a shot at CNBC for covering the economy in the way the Weather Channel and CNN cover hurricanes: with breathless alarm and Anderson Cooper dressed in rain-gear while panting in a way that makes every puff of wind seem like proof that, yes, this could be the Category 5 we’ve all feared.

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via.

At the conference, I heard business-side and news-side people from Dow-Jones, CNBC, Fox Business News, the Economist, BusinessWeek, Forbes.com and Fortune magazine (to name a few) say something to the effect: This is a really difficult time, but this is the story of a lifetime and, well, it’s been good for our ratings (or newsstand sales).

So I guess I should not be surprised that since the business media is covering the “financial crisis” as if it is a weather event, business executives are using a term most associated with weather to describe how they are responding to the “crisis” that is leading to what our experts in the Economy Tracking Center in Miami are believing will be a Category 3, 4 or maybe even 5 recession. Or better yet, a nuclear winter:

Hunker down.

Look at a Google news search for recent uses of the term “hunker down.” This morning, you’ll see it is not only the go-to cliche for covering bad weather (the snows in the northeast) and natural disasters (the earth quake in Pakistan), but it is now the must-use term to describe anything related to how businesses and individuals are reacting to the “bad economy.”

As a business person, I understand the realities of needing to be mindful of the context and conditions you face. Certainly, if your customers are sitting on their wallets, you can’t pretend they are about to purchase your wares. Flexibility and being ever-mindful of the need to prepare for whatever situation you face is the only way to run a business. But by focusing on the hunker down metaphor — especially the “we’re afraid” aspects of the term, there is a strong possibility that the “hunker down” activities are no more than duck-and-cover exercises.

Isn’t “hunkering down” the panic reaction to a situation that a calm, rational person might discover contains some opportunity? What if you’re in a business that suddenly finds all of its competitors “re-trenching” and “pulling back” and “hiding in caves” — if you, also, are “hunkering down,” aren’t you missing a unique opportunity to gain market share?

The term hunker down means two things: One is related to preparation for some type of pressure you’re anticipating. The other relates to “hiding.”

I fear that a lot of business planners are confusing the first type of hunkering down — anticipating and preparing for an economic downturn — with the second type of hunkering down: hiding.

If you’re a company or organization that wants to elevate its awareness — and brand — in the market you serve, the worst thing you can do — in good times or bad — is “hunker down” — as in, hide. The evidence is overwhelming that companies who market wisely and aggressively while others are hunkering down are the winners during — and after — a recession. For example, according to research conducted at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business during the last recession, “firms entering a recession with a pre-established strategic emphasis on marketing; an entrepreneurial culture; and a sufficient reserve of under-utilized workers, cash, and spare production capacity are best positioned to approach recessions as opportunities to strengthen their competitive advantage.”

Rather than use the “hunker down” metaphor, the “winner” companies followed another metaphor — one from athletic competition:

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“Athletes often choose times of stress to mount attacks: strong runners and bicycle racers may increase their pace on hills or under other challenging conditions,” the authors write. “In a similar vein, proactive marketing includes both the sensing of the existence of the opportunity (a tough hill and fatigued opponents) and an aggressive response (possessing the necessary strength or nerve) to the opportunity.”

A warning, however: The research indicates that it is only when companies are prepared for recessions (like cyclists who train for hills) who benefit. Thus, Apple with its pre-existing marketing and advertising savvy and a mountain of cash, is likely to benefit during this recession, as it has in previous ones, rather than another company whose marketing is inept, even in less challenging times.

Bottomline: “Hunkering down” is not the metaphor you want as your guide when planning your marketing efforts for the coming months — especially if your marketing has been working and your competitor seems to be huffing and puffing already. Hunker down wherever you can — say, executive compensation — but use a recession to raise your visibility, not hide.

[cross-posted at Hammock.com/rexhammock]

Almost one-third of Tennesseans have already voted

WKRN-TV’s blogger/twitterist Christian Grantham has been tracking early voting statistics for the past three weeks and notes that as of Monday, 1,105,980 Tennesseans have already voted in what “next Tuesday’s” election. That represents almost 30% of Tennessee’s registered voters, suggesting that the state could see well over one-third of voters opting to vote early. (I voted last week and will post some video when I can get around to it.)

For those of you whose states do not have early voting, I can’t stress how great it is. In Tennessee, early voting begins 20 days before the election and ends 5 days before it (in other words, it ends tomorrow – October 30). Early voting includes Saturdays, which I think is a great option for many people. (Here is a link to Nashville/Davidson County early voting locations and times.)

Early voting is not exactly like voting on Election Day — but I’ve noticed that over the years, it is getting closer and close. The number of voting locations is greatly reduced during the early voting period — and voters can go to any location. In other words, they are not required to go to their local precinct as on election day. In a rather impressive way, the voting locations have the technology and network capable of accessing a central database that prevents voters from voting more than once in different locations.

Here’s a state-by-state break down of early voting practices.

Future of Business Magazines

(From the Future of Business Media Conference) These are rough notes, not quotes.

On panel: David Carey (president of CondeNast Business), Keith Fox (president, BusinessWeek), Paul Rossi (publisher of the Economist); Vivek Shah, (President of Fortune/Money group); Jim Spanfeller (president, Forbes.com)

On integration:

Fox: Our operations are merged — not perfect, but makes sense. Both journalists and sales people are integrated.

Rossi: We offer our customers whatever they need, if they want to purchase just print, we offer them print, we sell them just print.

On Conde Nast’s commitment to Portfolio:

Carey: Even in a bad year, we’ve done 700 pages. Online, the business has scaled well. 3 million unique visitors. Recalls Conde Nast’s purchase of Wired. Timing. Tanking. And today it’s incredibly valuable to Conde Nast.

On BusinessWeek’s social networking efforts:

Fox: Six weeks into it, it has met all the metrics we had for it. Right now, it’s news driven topics, but we expect it will be more around career in the long term.

On Business 2.0 closure:

Shah: We closed it but most of the staff became the tech bureau of Fortune — and that has been successful in increased technology advertising.

Random quotes:

Carey: On Portfoflo, the interactive features. On Wired, the how-to wiki has been an extraordinary success. Novel elements have really helped us.

Fox: Bringing the users into BusinessWeek.com has been successful. User comments, “in your face.” Measure some of those as key metrics of engagement. That’s outside widgets, podcasts, etc. But we’ve gotten rid of things that haven’t worked. With finite resources, we’ve pulled back from things — like lifestyle coverage.

Spanfeller: It depends on where people come from. You have to be up to date — instantly. The web is frictionless. The way people interact with a magazine is completely different than how they interact with a website. We publish 4,000 articles a day on Forbes.com. If we don’t push that number higher, then we won’t succeed.

Spanfeller: You can never have too much content on your website. The end user decides what they want to look at. It’s a limitless platform. You are only constrained by the resources you have.

Spanfeller: SEO is over-rated, but still important. People sample the site from different places and certain percentage them come back.

They all agreed, there will be a big media brand in the business space that will be gone in five years — or one year.

Shah: Brand vs. response advertising is the big debate taking place. Online display is supposed to be measure in “click-through” rates, but getting click-throughs is about like getting hit by lightening. However, on “search,” Google delivers metrics. We don’t do as good a job at providing the impact of display and image advertising.

Spanfeller: The horizontal ad networks has done something that is bad — drive the discussing back to cost per click. We need to move the conversation back to branding.

Carey: We’ve seen two types of clients: 1. Those who are looking forward to gaining market share during a thinned out advertising environment — they plan on increasing their ad buys; and 2. Those who believe the sky is falling.

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Interview with Paul Rossi (publisher of the Economist)

(From the Future of Business Media Conference) These are rough notes, not quotes.

On strategy in this type of environment: You don’t change your strategy. We won’t be pulling back from our marketing strategy. Our strategy for growing in this market will stay the same. We have a unique focus and what’s happening in the world is what we’ve been writing about for 100+ years.

On thinking about the brand: Managing the brand — or growing it — is something we’ve placed a lot of emphasis. In the UK, the understanding of the brand is completely different that here. We have a plan in the U.S. that goes city-by-city. We have a person working on executing that. We have events. We have things online — We’ve built an electoral college for different countries so the whole world can vote for President of the U.S.

On ‘feeding’ younger people into the brand: We have all sorts of widgets and involvement with social networks.

On different strategies for different countries: Different places one goes on newsstands. Different pricing in different countries. We spent a lot of effort in the U.S. because we discovered there were 2.5 million who should be reading us. (Based on lot of data points related to media consumption, membership in international fliers clubs, ownership.) That’s why we decided to spend the time and resources to be here.

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Interview with Norm Pearlstine

At the Future of Business Media Conference, former executive editor of the Wall Street Journal, and then, editor-in-chief of Time, Norm Pearlstine — now “chief content officer” of Bloomberg — is being interviewed by Lauren Rich Fine. The following are my rough notes, not quotes.

Fine: Bulk of Bloomberg’s revenue comes from “the terminal business” — about 290,000 customers pay about $18,000 per year to access that news and information. (That’s about $5 billion.) They have TV cable channel, magazine that goes to terminal customers and syndication business. The non-terminal business is (estimate) less than 10%, so why is it important?

Pearlstine: It’s a relatively small slice of the business world that operates in the terminal business, but we always see competitors, so we think the brand allows us to do various and successful things. If we do them well, they can help our business.

Fine: How do you view Dow Jones and Thompson-Reuters?

Pearlstine:In my short time there, I’ve seen an incredibly customer-focused company. They don’t really focus on a specific competitor. They view everybody as competition because everyone is coming after the Bloomberg customers.

Fine: Do you have changes in mind? Are you pleased with what you see?

Pearlstine:Bloomberg TV has always seemed like an extension of the terminal. If you think back to that time, what we were trying to do was laudable. But there was not a recognition that TV was a different medium where entertainment and personality matters.

More about Bloomberg TV: We were the first business media to put an ap on the iPhone (huh? the wsj had one a day one).

Fine: Do we really need another Business TV cable channel?

Pearlstine:We feel we have ideas about differentiation from the other channels. And we also have a global footprint that distinguishes us from the others — especially from Fox. We also have the tie-in with the terminal audience.

Question from the audience: Why don’t you acquire companies?

Pearlstine:We’ve found it better to build. However, we have signaled that we will look at investment in companies and acquisitions — but not probably the types of acquisitions you read about — smaller ones. (Pearlstine makes a passing quip — that I didn’t quite catch — about AOL, referencing his experience at Time.)

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