Bovee & Thill Business Communication Blog
Insights and commentary from the authors of the world’s
leading business communication textbooks


Enter your Email:

Suggestion Box

Please send us your suggestions for improving our textbooks and supplementary materials. We’d be grateful for your feedback.

Bovée & Thill Mobile App


Archive for the 'Social Media' Category

These PowerPoint slides offer annotated examples from three companies making effective use of social media tools to develop customer relationships:

  • Biznik
  • Segway
  • Lie-Nielsen Toolworks


You can download the PowerPoint file from the link below.

Have you noticed more companies lowering their guard when it comes to communicating in a lighthearted style?

We have only anecdotal observations on this, but as social media change the nature of the relationships between companies and their stakeholders, we’ve noticed an uptick in the number of companies working humor into their routine communication efforts.

At the subtle end of the humor spectrum, for example, the software company Techsmith includes the following privacy statement at the end of its email newsletters:

We're happy to have you on our list, and since we want to keep you all to ourselves, we never share your email address with anyone.

"We want to keep you all to ourselves" is a pleasant and slightly offbeat way to convey both the privacy assurance and the idea that Techsmith values its customers.

At the other end of the spectrum—far, far at the other end—the online music retailer CD Baby has some fun with its version of letting customers know their orders are on the way:

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.

A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing.

Our world-renowned packing specialist lit a local artisan candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.

We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved "Bon Voyage!" to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, May 17, 2011.

We hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. In commemoration, we have placed your picture on our wall as "Customer of the Year."

Such an over-the-top message wouldn’t work for a bank or a medical products supplier, to be sure. However, the humor probably promotes a closer emotional bond with CD Baby, if only for poking fun at other companies that take themselves a little too seriously.

Have you seen notable examples of "business funny" that suggest a more relaxed approach to business communication (outside of advertising, that is)? Would you consider having your students try a writing exercise in this vein?

By the way, we're going to take a short break and will begin posting again in mid-August. Have a great summer!

Social media offer many compelling benefits, but managing business communication in this rapidly changing environment is not a simple task, for a number of reasons:

  • The communication effort is more complex, with more internal and external channels to staff and monitor. Managers need to make sure that outgoing messages are consistent, that incoming messages are addressed in a timely fashion, that problems and opportunities don’t fall through the cracks between all the various communication channels, and that all channels are used appropriately and legally. Simply keeping track of all the messages a company sends out—which is required for regulatory compliance in some industries—is such a challenge that new systems are being developed to capture and archive these vast and growing communication streams.
  • With more media information channels that require attention, the cost structure of business communication can change dramatically. For instance, companies shifting some of their marketing communication efforts from traditional advertising vehicles to social media may find themselves spending less on media but more on personnel in order to have enough employees available to monitor and respond to social media traffic. If companies are unable to add staff to handle social media work, they need to find ways to shift workloads around so that social media do not become an unsustainable burden.
  • Media tools and consumer behavior can evolve so quickly and so unpredictably that companies must be prepared to experiment continuously, adapt ideas that work, and abandon bad ideas—or good ideas that have outlived their usefulness. At the same time, companies must avoid slipping into a purely reactive mode, jumping on every hot idea and trend without integrating their efforts in an overall strategic framework.
  • Finally, companies need to have social media guidelines for their employees that strike a balance between too much control and too little. On the one hand, companies that go too far in trying to control their messages or their employees’ use of social media won’t reap the full benefits. On the other hand, not enough control can lead to chaotic inefficiency, mixed messages that confuse customers, and the risk of exposing information that needs to be kept secret for strategic or even legal reasons.


Among major corporations, IBM has been on the leading edge of social media usage since the earliest days of blogging and strongly encourages employees to use these tools. The company’s Social Computing Guidelines offer a number of insights into managing social communication and some intriguing topics for classroom discussion. For example, the company makes it clear that employees are personally responsible for any content they publish online and that they must always include a disclaimer that their opinions don’t necessarily reflect IBM’s official positions. The wide-ranging guidelines also provide helpful etiquette advice that would benefit everyone in the online arena, including "Don’t pick fights, and be the first to correct your own mistakes."

Adapted from Mark Evans, "No Social Media for Us, Thank You," Sysomos blog, 9 February 2011; Tanzina Vega, "Tools to Help Companies Manage Their Social Media," New York Times, 14 November 2010 [accessed 30 January 2011]; Paula Drum, "I Got People (Online): How H&R Block Connects by Using Social Media, presentation at BlogWell conference, 22 January 2009; Nick Wreden, "Social Media Policies for Business," Baseline, 7 June 2010 "Social Computing Guidelines," IBM [accessed 3 May 2011]

Image credit: Daniel Iverson

Want to make an unpleasant situation even worse? Spring the news on people with no warning.

Chargify, which provides securing billing solutions for small to midsized e-commerce companies, charges its clients flat monthly fees based on the number of customers they have. This tiered pricing plan keeps costs low for e-commerce startups that still have few revenue-generating customers.

Until recently, the lowest tier in Chargify’s pricing plan had an extremely attractive price point—it was free. The idea behind the free tier was to attract e-commerce companies still in their startup phase, and as they grew, they would grow into the higher tiers and become paying clients. However, Chargify discovered that many companies in the free tier grew very slowly, if they grew at all, and Chargify wound up supporting a lot of users that weren’t bringing in any revenue.

In order to pull in enough money to deliver the dependable, sustainable services that its clients needed, Chargify realized it needed to raise prices, and that included charging lowest-tier clients for the first time. The company announced its new pricing structure and immediately came under attack from many of its clients—for the price increases themselves, for the lack of any advance notice, and for Chargify’s refusal to “grandfather” existing customers under their original pricing plans. Some called the company “greedy” or “stupid,” and a few went so far as to accuse it of bait-and-switch tactics.

As bloggers and commenters across the Internet piled on, the technology news site TechCrunch summed up with the situation with an article that began, “It’s been a rough day for Chargify . . .” After spending two long days responding to criticisms on Twitter, industry blogs, and other venues, co-founder David Hauser wrote an unusually frank blog post titled “How to Break the Trust of Your Customers in Just One Day: Lessons Learned from a Major Mistake.” He said the company made “a massive mistake” in the way it handled the changes to its pricing model. By failing to alert customers well in advance of the change, he continued, Chargify “broke a trust that we had developed with our customers over a long period of time, and will take much to repair. We should have communicated our need and desire to remove free plans and provided more information about how this would happen, and over a period of time leading up to the change.”

The services Chargify provides take money to deliver, and the price increases were necessary, but everyone involved agrees that the situation was not handled well. Hauser and his team will continue to learn new lessons as they expand Chargify, but you can bet they won’t ever initiate a price increase without giving their customers plenty of warning. (By the way, if you teach Introduction to Business, this story has a number of interesting angles to discuss in class, including the difficulty of validating a business model before it goes live, the financial imperative to jettison unprofitable customers, and the pluses and minuses of the freemium pricing strategy.)

The energy drink company Red Bull has one of the largest fan bases on Facebook, giving it the opportunity to connect with millions of enthusiastic customers. This annotated PowerPoint slide illustrates the company's audience-centered approach to social media—sharing information and stimulating conversations among fans—rather than the traditional mode of delivering promotional messages to passive receivers.

Judging from the number of articles offering advice, the question of how to encourage more comments on posts is a matter of wide concern among bloggers. In fact, this dilemma seems to be at the heart of the social media model.

Blog comments can be tremendously valuable in multiple ways, of course, from gathering market intelligence to correcting or expanding information offered in a post. The question we’d like to focus on here is whether comment volume is a useful measurement of social media engagement:

  • Is comment volume a meaningful measure of engagement specifically and of communication success more generally, relative to the other metrics available (including friend, membership, or subscriber totals; page
    views; file downloads; and product orders)?
  • Other than those situations in which collecting information via comments is the primary purpose of a blog post, can bloggers meet their ultimate goals without generating high volumes of comments?
  • What would change if comment volume on a given blog was two or three or ten times higher?
  • Is a lack of comments necessarily a negative sign, or is it more just a reflection of how things are?
  • If a blog has only limited commenting traffic, does it truly qualify as a social medium? Or is it really closer to the traditional publishing model, in which readers get the information they want without participating in a conversation?

While pondering these questions, we stepped back to consider our own behavior as blog readers, both in our personal interests and with the thousands of business-oriented blog posts we read every year.

Why Don’t Readers Leave More Comments?

This isn’t a rigorous analysis, but we reflected on our own blog reading habits and extrapolated six possible reasons why blog readers may be reluctant to leave comments.

  • Limited by time constraints. Every professional has too much to do, and leaving comments is just one more item on the to-do list.
  • Not feeling part of the community. Some blogs seem to have a tightknit sense of community, with a core of frequent commenters who are on friendly and even personal terms. To other readers, this close sense of community can seem like a closed sense of community, and joining the conversation can feel like butting into a lively conversation at a party.
  • Reluctant to ask for advice or information. Some blog readers are comfortable using the comment function to ask for information or advice, but we suspect many others are not and would rather dig around to find answers on their own.
  • Having nothing substantial to add. Most of the time, we’d be willing to speculate, most readers conclude that they don’t have anything useful to add. More broadly, blog posts that are clear, complete, and noncontroversial probably won’t attract a lot of in-depth comments simply because there isn’t much for anybody to add.
  • Unmotivated by a sense of reward. Even when readers might have something to add, many probably consider the potential reward (such as peer recognition or promotion for one’s own blog) and conclude it’s not worth the trouble.
  • Sensing that the conversational peak is over. When posts do generate a healthy comment stream, this often seems to peak after a couple of days. After that, many readers who might be motivated to comment probably sense that the show has moved on and there is no point in contributing.

Given how many reasons there are not to leave comments, ramping up comment volume is clearly a challenge. If nothing else, bloggers need to adopt a realistic stance when it comes to getting comments.

Can Readers Be Engaged Without Leaving Comments?

Evidence suggests that bloggers can accomplish communication goals without it showing up in comment volume. For instance, we’ve purchased books, courses, and other products from bloggers without leaving comments on their posts. In these instances we’re deeply engaged as readers and consumers, and they’re accomplishing at least some of their business goals, without us being visible community members in the “social” sense.

A lack of comments might be troubling, in other words, but it doesn’t necessarily signal a lack of engagement.

Bottom Line: Where Do Comments Fit in the Big Picture?

No single answer will fit every situation, but it seems appropriate to ask if the quest for comments can be overemphasized. At the very least, bloggers should figure out where comment volume falls in their hierarchy of goals. For example, are comments mostly “feel good” feedback, a real information source, an opportunity for readers to share their knowledge, or something else entirely?

And now to demonstrate our finely tuned sense of irony, we’d like to ask for your comments on this article. As a blog reader, do you find comments from other readers generally valuable? Are you a regular commenter yourself? Why or why not? If you blog, do you view comment volume as an important metric of engagement?

The terminology might be new, but it’s been going on for about as long as mobile digital gadgets have been around. If you’ve stood in front of a class any time in the past five years or so, it’s been happening right in front of you.

The Backchannel: A Communication Revolution

The new name for this old phenomenon is the backchannel, which presentation expert Cliff Atkinson defines as “a line of communication created by people in an audience to connect with others inside or outside the room, with or without the knowledge of the speaker.”

A backchannel appears whenever people start a parallel, digital conversation, which can be done with e-mail, IM, text messaging, live-blogging, Twitter, and whatever innovation comes along next. The backchannel is revolutionizing business presentations, so much so that systems such as BackNoise have been launched specifically to enable backchannels. Many conferences now publish a Twitter hashtag and encourage attendees to use this tag when they tweet during presentations so that interested parties can easily participate in the conversation.

The Risks and Rewards of the Backchannel

The backchannel presents both risks and rewards for business presenters. On the negative side, for example, listeners can research your claims the instant you make them and spread the word quickly if they think your information is shaky. The backchannel also gives contrary audience members more leverage, which can lead to presentations spinning out of control.

On the plus side, listeners who are excited about your message can build support for it, expandon it, and spread it to a much larger audience in a matter of seconds. You can also get valuable feedback during and after presentations. Some presenters even schedule “Twitter breaks” to catch up on comments and questions from the audience.

The Backchannel in the Classroom: What’s Your Stance?

In business settings, the secret to succeeding with the backchannel is to embrace the concept, rather than trying to ignore it or fight it. The backchannel is going to happen whether the presenter likes it or not.
In a classroom setting, however, an instructor obviously has at least some degree of control. What is your stance in the classroom? Do you encourage, tolerate, or prohibit electronic communication during lectures? Have you tried to integrate the backchannel during student presentations?

Please share your thoughts on how this phenomenon can be tamed when it might be a distraction or used to positive effect as a teaching tool.Go to http://boveeandthillbusinesscommunicationblog and write your comments.

We can only assume that BP’s website has been hacked. As of October 7, 2010, the “Contacts” page in the “Gulf of Mexico Response” section of BP’s website links to a parody Twitter account, @Oil_Spill_2010. The downloadable PDF (see link above) has current captures of the BP webpage, the parody Twitter account, and BP’s real Twitter account.

This is not the first Twitter parody account associated with the spill, either. Another spoof account, @BPGlobalPR, currently has 188,000 followers—ten times more than BP’s own Twitter account.

Aside from the matter of tighter website security to prevent hacked links, this situation highlights the challenge of responding to negative information in a social media environment. Here are some related questions to discuss with your students:

  • Are parody efforts an effective form of protest communication?
  • Are such parodies ethical from the perspective of all stakeholders?
  • In general, how should a company respond to social media attacks on its reputation, particularly in the case of a Twitter account such as @BPGlobalPR, which has a much larger following than the company’s own account?
  • Should BP engage @BPGlobalPR directly (by having a company representative respond to its tweets) or indirectly (relying on its own PR efforts to counter the negative information)?
  • How should a company respond if someone is spreading demonstrably false information about its products, operations, or executives?