Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The opposite of Facebook

Last week, I learned that college students define the entire world of online networking as Facebook.

I spoke about job hunting to two groups of SUNY at Buffalo students: the first, an informal lunchtime group of English majors; the other, a mixture of communications and English students with graduation on the horizon. When I asked them to raised their hands if they had ever heard of LinkedIn, hardly one could be seen.

Facebook, of course, they were intimately familiar with.

I began speaking about LinkedIn with students last fall, and now it takes up a good portion of my conversation with them. I don't pretend that LinkedIn is going to solve all job problems, but if the name of the game is improving your odds in getting a foot in the door and moving you up the Google ladder, the site is one excellent tool.

Not surprisingly, graduating liberal arts majors are nervous about finding any work and it is my job to prevent them from jumping off any high ledges. They are amazingly unprepared, and still seem stuck in antiquated ways of job hunting.

I present LinkedIn as "the opposite of Facebook": Facebook was the rage of college students until the company flung open the doors a couple of years ago and let all the adults crash the party. Facebook allows students to post all kinds of silly photos and comments to each other online and it really underscores the "social" in social media.

On the other hand, LinkedIn has been the domain of post-college professionals looking to network and advance their careers, and you won't find a drunken photo anywhere. The doors have always been open to college students, but it seems they are barely peeking inside.

I describe LinkedIn as a "road map of people's connections" to undergraduates, a valuable tool for networking, a concept that they really barely understand. To them, it's all about blindly sending out cover letters and resumes to anything that resembles a PR firm or in-house entity, which is probably why when they get real jobs, they do the same things with pitch letters and press releases. Nobody has taught them about how to really network, much like nobody seems to have taught junior level publicists how to create real relationships with the media.

There are still many college career advisers who insist resumes should have objectives written on top of them. Nearly 99% of the cover letters I receive start with those dreaded words "I am a senior at...." and they don't seem to know anything about me, my company or my clients. It's really the same as e-mail blasting.

Student career counseling has to come out of the Stone Age. They should be explaining what LinkedIn and other professional networks are and how to make the best of them. Why it's important to have a good search engine profile and probably register their name as a domain so they can always own it. The game plan has to include real networking, hitting up your profs, TA's, parents, their friends, your internship employers -- everybody -- and ask for informational interviews and referrals. Personize your job search, much like you should be personalizing your journalist relationships when you're a PR pro.

You can imagine my delight when I see students taking detailed notes during my presentation and afterwards, they come up to me and say "Thanks for pointing out all those bad cover letters. I was about to send mine out and they looked just like that. I'm going back to rewrite them."

Any student who is smart enough to LinkIn to me after my talk is one step ahead of almost everybody else. Unfortunately, there are so few of them.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Over the hill and overhauls

When my company handled the Sporting News in the earlier part of this decade, the president and CEO was fixated on making a big stink over the magazine's 135th anniversary. Of course, the owners were trying to sell the property at the same time too.

What's so special about 135 years? What makes it more unique than the 130th anniversary? Would it get more traction five years later at 140? Or is 150 the real magic number that we should wait for that people would pay attention to? 135 years is kind of a nowhere anniversary number.

I really didn't want to embarrass myself or my client because if we were going to get behind a campaign, it should have genuine news value. Not necessarily in the eyes of the president and CEO, but in the eyes of the media we would be pitching it to.

My strategy for situations like this was always to stick my toe out very cautiously in a couple of places to see if there'd be any traction. I'd call a friendly journalist or two, gossip about the media for a few minutes, and then just run the idea by them in an off-hand way...

"Sporting News is turning 135 next month, can you believe it? Isn't that the same age Abraham was in the Bible when he left Haran?"

"Uh yeah, that's old. How's your brother doing?"

I would like to think that after many years in the business, and having been a journalist myself, I have a very keen sense of what makes news. Nearly all the time, my clients trust my intuition, but there's the periodic case where they find it hard to believe nobody will write an article about their 8th anniversary, new typeface, wider photographs or enlarged sidebar.

"These days, we do very, very, very few anniversary stories," one major newspaper reporter e-mailed me. "Unless there is some forward-looking aspects, here and now type stuff rather than wallowing in nostalgia."

On the other hand, an entertainment news radio producer said: "It's all about the narrative. A good nostalgic tie-in adds emotional depth. Pertinence relating to pop culture will help it resonate with the majority of the population. I would say those two elements make for a good narrative."

In a 2007 article in the Columbus Dispatch, columnist Joe Blundo sarcastically cracked that "The five-year anniversaries of major world events get abundant attention up to Year 25. Then interest dwindles until Year 50, when it dawn on the media that if they don't hurry up and do some interviews, the principals will all be dead."

Redesigns also have that hit or miss criteria for newsworthiness, and it's interesting to observe what the media deems to cover.

Magazines redesign themselves every time the wind changes direction -- "We've altered the logo!" "We've cleaned up the front of the book!" The media mostly yawns, since they are far more interested in editorial shifts.

The media yardstick seems to be mass consumer product institutions, like Facebook and Tropicana cartons, both of which came under withering criticism upon their unveilings. One marketing columnist confessed to me: "If lots [of] money involved, big brand, long time no changes, that makes it more interesting."

Despite the media's nearly across the board ignorance of any redesign below that yardstick, companies still crank out press releases about visual tweaks that "offer more information," "are more consumer friendly," and "create enhanced navigation." One current press release touts that they "conducted usability testing and heuristic evaluation to provide a new user interface."

Desperate to blow their own horns, companies seriously need to do a reality check of their self-importance.

Stop 10 people on the street. If they have never heard of your company, then you're not that big enough to invite the world to your birthday.

If you're redesigning for your anniversary, that doesn't mean you have doubled your chances making the media care.

If you've made it 10 years in your industry, sure, take a bow to your industry peers and if you're a consumer product, you're entitled to let them know too. Just don't do it again for another 10 years, OK?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

New document: The Beginner's Guide to Job Networking

Next week, I'm traveling for what is turning out to be my bi-annual SUNY at Buffalo visit to give career talks.

I'm like the white knight to prevent liberal arts majors from jumping off tall buildings when figuring out what to do when they graduate. It seems to work, as last fall, I had a SRO crowd.

As I always have practical hand-outs for my visits, I wrote a new two-page document for the occasion -- "The Beginner's Guide To Job Networking," which I have posted in my documents section on the right.

I hope you can find use in its advice, but more importantly, please pass it on to college graduates you may know. Thank you!