November 30, 2007
DEATH to Embargoes?
Attention Bloggers & Journalists: How far will you go to get the scoop on a product announcement in advance? Under what circumstances would you break an embargo to one-up your competitor or gain more traffic?
PR and marketing folks have always argued that journalists don’t realize or appreciate the power they have to make or break a company or product. It remains true today, only added to the mix is a list of bloggers who are eager to break stories early.
In the world of social media, where many bloggers haven't come up through the ranks of journalism training (yeah, the old guard), what becomes of the traditional ethics and codes of conduct? And do any of these old codes, like embargoes, matter anymore?
The old guard knows what an embargo is – it’s clear and is taught early. Here’s a definition for those who need a reminder.
An embargo is a request by a source that the information or news provided by that source not be published until a certain date or certain conditions have been met. The media is given advance knowledge of details being held secret so reports can be prepared to coincide with the announcement date and yet still meet press time (the fact that deadlines are less of an issue with bloggers is irrelevant).
Embargoes are usually arranged in advance as "gentlemen's agreements." Breaking an embargo is typically considered a serious breach of trust and can result in the source barring the offending news outlet from receiving advance information for a long period of time, giving them a long-term disadvantage relative to more cooperative outlets.
Some of my social media friends will argue 'why have embargoes at all?' Just throw it out there and let the community decide whether it’s a great product or not. Leave everything open, control nothing and let the masses decide. Hmmmm.
It is certainly one option and your path to success is a lot easier if you have ins with all the right bloggers who will help spread the word virally about your product or service.
It also helps if you have ins with the VCs and PR folks who have the right relationships to move you from nothingness to brand recognition. And sometimes it succeeds just because it’s innovative and a viral addictive concept, i.e., YouTube, StumbleUpon.
There are risks if you do throw your product out there in early beta, which is a strategy I have taken with a number of clients with success. Imagine scenarios we have all experienced.
Take movie scene number one, where the techies and early adopters are forgiving to early bugs and design flaws, and perhaps even give the engineers praise for a cool new feature.
Movie scene number two shows the less forgiving guys – the real folks, like Joe Brown from Kansas who decides to slam a new site and a hundred of his friends follow because they don’t understand what a beta means, that it’s not final, that the company fully intends to add all 25 features that he and his friends want. And so on.
Enter the world of social media where comments flow in ways today that only came from expert to reader in the John Dvorak, David Coursey, Michael Miller and Bill Laberis columns of old. We love the input and we love the fact that users can participate in conversations like never before.
THIS my friends is a great thing. BUT that doesn't mean that companies shouldn't TIME flow and TIME their rollout.
Look at Apple, the Gods of Marketing, who creates buzz for months in advance, so that folks like Robert Scoble and other early adopters who are passionate about technology line up on the sidewalks with blankets and pillows hours before the stores open on launch day.
During the Spock launch, we met with three of the four reporters to whom Apple gave an early glimpse of the iPhone, the day they were filing their stories. They strategically timed four powerful business media outlets to release their hopefully ‘thumbs-up’ reviews on the exact same day.
In the past ten days, for two of our clients, there were a couple of blogs that broke embargoes we asked them to honor. One site was actually live, meaning it was a public beta link people could get to if they knew where to go. Let's call them Client A.
Client A selectively shared the link to solicit early feedback and then incorporated that feedback before they wanted the rest of the world to start using it. Fair enough! They wanted more content on the site before making a splash, which they were adding daily leading up to the announcement date.
So, while we were not thrilled with a blog announcing the site early and lost other well-deserved blog coverage as a result of it, it didn't ruin all of Client A’s efforts around the launch as a Company, just ours -- the PR team.
For Client B, the announcement was a dramatically overhauled site, one which had new navigation, flow, design, and message. Not only were the product design and logo changed, but we rewrote the website content as well.
Just like we did with Client A, we clearly conveyed the embargo date to everyone we spoke to in advance during a demo using a private not-for-release URL. The blog broke the embargo by three full days, meaning that people reading the article were clicking on an OLD site, a far cry from what the world would see three days later.
Soon thereafter, another blog we have a relationship with but had not yet briefed, linked to the first article and grabbed a screenshot for the blog from the old site, thinking that it was brand new. So, now two blogs are taking readers to an old site. Blog B was not at fault here – they were merely linking to something they thought was new.
Tell me – how does it serve readers if they’re being sent to an old site? It negatively misrepresents the company, all because the online journalist didn’t have the courtesy to respect an embargo. Are embargoes dead in the new world of social media? Should they be?
The amount of time and resources that go into a launch for a small company is significant. Start-ups, which I largely represent, and God knows Silicon Valley is full of them, have tight budgets, small engineering teams, watchful VCs if they have any at all, and a CEO who is wearing ten hats. Yet, these are the change-makers of our industry.
I was chatting with an industry colleague who is a senior marketing executive at Intel about embargoes and what it means to them. For a company of their size, when embargoes are broken, it’s never great, but there’s no mistaking an old product for a new one like there could be with a site no one has ever visited.
Secondly, it doesn’t impact their launch in the way it does a start-up. For Intel’s most recent launch, they expect over 1,000 media hits from their announcement, impossible for any start-up even with the best product and the sharpest team in place.
So yes folks, for start-ups, breaking an embargo can have a demonstrable negative impact. And a word to new companies: before you give embargoed access to a technology blog that you think despite its circulation, will make or break your product, don’t lose sight of your long term goals.
It’s about the ‘right buzz,’ not making an initial splash on a blog that may create immediate but short-lived hype for you in Silicon Valley or the greater technology community.
Only a handful of them really matter to your launch at the end of the day, not unlike the way a handful of traditional media outlets mattered ten years ago. I love the fact that we have more choice, that everyone now has a voice and several platforms from which to speak out.
With that choice comes the need to select our content more carefully, both to pitch our new products to and to read. When we make those choices, let’s choose the media outlets and blogs with integrity.
What goes around comes around. Show a little respect, think about what an embargo means, why its there and preserve that gentleman’s handshake. Integrity is vital to the ongoing success of our industry and our lives. I grew up with something called honor. Let’s make sure it doesn’t go away.
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Nothing has changed. If you don't honor an embargo then next time you should be barred from the information.
I do honor embargoes but, I often won't write about the news event because everybody else is writing about it. I want to provide something original and not add to the white noise.
Also, sometimes embargos are a week or more out, and I've forgotten about the information by then anyway.
Plus, I remember one time you were upset with me for writing about an interview with one of your clients when there was NO embargo, but it meant that other writers (WSJ, SF Chron, Business Week) might not now write an article because I had written the piece first!
There are several ways to have numerous bites at the cherry...
Posted by: Tom Foremski | Nov 30, 2007 2:54:03 PM
Thanks for writing this Rene. I've forwarded it to several of my staff and friends. It's very well laid out and I wholeheartedly agree. It's posts like these that keep me coming back to your feed!
As blogger-journalist lines blur and our traditional definitions of media outlets for social/public relations are redefined, we shouldn't have to redefine our ethics.
Just as journalists who build reputations of trust an integrity prosper, so will bloggers. No need for new rules as far as I can see...
Happy belated birthday!
Posted by: David LaPlante | Nov 30, 2007 3:26:40 PM
Your position is reasonable, in my opinion. As a blogger, I always respect embargoes just as I respect off-the-record comments.
No journalist or blogger is compelled to accept information governed by an embargo. The embargoed information is given as part of a deal that should be enveloped by trust on both side.
Trust and integrity take many forms, this being one of them.
Posted by: Michael Krigsman | Dec 2, 2007 8:38:37 PM