What’s your biggest challenge right now?

My biggest challenge is delivering return on investment for clients through the best marketing possible, because marketing is changing so fast. And in the age of the commercial internet, it’s a matter of test and learn. You’re testing to learn whether (messages) work and to have a client who is nimble enough and wants to try things.

When you’re doing digital advertising, you’re trying to connect the correct message with the correct audience. And sometimes you have to try a few different messages, and different audiences, to see what resonates. That’s called A-B testing. Try message A with this audience and message B with this audience, and see what works. So it’s finding clients who are willing to try new things and make an investment to deliver a return on investment, because it’s not your grandfather’s marketing anymore. (Clients) could be losing a whole new segment of customers. There could be customers out there that they’re not connecting with because they’re not willing to try new things.

There’s something called the long tail of the web. We’re doing the PR for the Kotzschmar organ, which is the famous organ at Merrill Auditorium. Through the long tail of the web, (we’re) finding people all over the world who are interested in amazing pipe organs and are willing to travel to see them. In the old days, you would have just put an ad in the Portland Press Herald and hope the people reading the newspaper would see that. But now, you could put a lot of content online about this municipal pipe organ. There’s another one in San Diego, actually at the San Diego Zoo. There’s people who are willing to buy a plane ticket and travel to see this kind of an organ.

What people in the old kind of marketing are going to miss is the possibility of tremendous growth, without even knowing  that these customers exist. There still is sometimes resistance and sometimes they worry that they’re going to get too many customers, and they won’t be able to serve them. I met with somebody yesterday who was like, “Oh, well, we don’t want too much.” And I said, “Well, that would be a good problem to have.”

We do have something we call the Marshall Plan, and that’s a three-year marketing strategy. It doesn’t all happen overnight with public relations and this new kind of what we call content marketing. It’s a long-term strategy, and a lot of times you’re trying to get the attention of Google because Google is so powerful now. Content marketing is the long-term technique of creating a lot of online content. And that could include public relations, like having an article in the Waterville (Morning) Sentinel or the Kennebec Journal or DownEast magazine. When someone Googles your service, a lot of content shows up in a lot of different places, not just on your own website.

That’s kind of a new way that we’re looking at our business. It’s not just a media relations, which is working with the media. It’s producing a lot of different kinds of content online. And I love that. I’m so excited, just so excited. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I wake up every day and I just can’t wait to do more because it’s so fun.

 

Who influenced you to go into this business?

I think my father (Frank L. Briggs) did. He died in 2006. He always pushed me academically from an early age. We weren’t allowed to watch television during the week. We had a sit down at our desk every night and do homework for two hours. He always said, “You can do or be whatever you want, but you have to be a good student.”

He was an electrical engineer, but he was also in sales, so he had the right brain and left brain going on as far as engineering, but also he was a charismatic person. I watched him, obviously — how he created relationships with his customers, and they really liked him. He loved his work. When I was 17 years old, he had sold the new generator for a new paper machine at Boise Cascade. I actually did up an article for the national Westinghouse magazine (Briggs worked for Westinghouse Electric Corporation) and took the pictures. I was like, “Oh, I love this, this is what I want to do.” He arranged for me to job shadow in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a whole week with the PR people when I was 17.  So that was really powerful and gave me something to really visualize what I wanted to do.

I had decided I wanted to go to Colby College when I was in eighth grade. I had an older friend who was going there. I went up to visit her and I was like, “Oh my God, this place is so beautiful. I want to go here.” So when I had my admissions interview when I was a senior in high school, I said to the director of admissions (that) I have wanted to come here since I was 13, so he said, “I guess I better let you in.”

I was working at Sugarloaf, and Sugarloaf implemented that program where they would pay for your master’s. Thomas was the logical place to go; it was the closest place to Sugarloaf that had an MBA program. I was working there at full time as director of communications, but I kind of drove my employers crazy because I was always full of ideas and I think a lot of times they’d be like, “Just do your job.” Finally they said “We think you should start your own business, but we will retain your services.” It was really a good thing because I had a good client the day I started. I had a retainer relationship with Sugarloaf, and I quickly picked up other clients. So that’s how I started Marshall Communications.

 

What role does technology play in your business?
It’s so big. I mean for one thing, the ability to keep track of people’s interests and target people. In media relations, if we have a client that’s promoting sustainability and travel, you can use technology and databases to find who’s writing what and what their interests are. Then you can connect with them through social media, and you can follow them on Twitter. In media relations you can really up your game as far as targeting. What we do for the State of Maine Tourism office is we get user-generated content on Instagram, for example, and share that using #theMaineThing. Social media is enormous with what we do, and then just with business processes, things like time tracking and billing and QuickBooks online. Every aspect of the business is impacted by technology.

I have a podcast called the PR Maven podcast, and that’s technology right there. My premise is that we all have to use both old fashioned relationship-building techniques and new relationship-building techniques. Some of us older people might resist social media because we’re afraid of it, or we don’t know how to use it. And I think all people need to embrace social media to build their relationships and network. And younger people need to learn how to actually have a face-to-face conversation. I think older people can learn from younger people about technology and younger people can learn from older people about how to engage in person.

 

What was your biggest misconception when you started your business? 

I thought, “Oh, I know how to do public relations, therefore I know how to run a business.” And running a business is a lot more. There’s a book called “The E-Myth Revisited.” And it’s about a young woman who loves to make cupcakes. So she starts a cupcake bakery, but then she realizes, “Oh, my God, I’ve got to actually learn about human resources to hire and retain people. And I’ve got to learn about accounting and bookkeeping and do the financial aspects of my business. And I’ve got to learn marketing.”

So yeah, I didn’t really think about all of the many aspects of running a business. And I also didn’t have a lot of cashflow. So things like hiring an attorney and accountants and financial planners, you know, all the professional help (was a challenge). I tried to cut corners with that stuff. Over time, I learned that you need to have professional services to have a professional business. Luckily now I have all those people in place. I have a lawyer; I have an accountant; I have a financial planner, and I have a business coach.

I also belong to two professional networks. One is the Women Presidents’ Organization in Portland. And then another group I belong to is called the Agency Management Institute that specializes in helping PR and advertising agency with all the aspects of managing an agency. Because when I started my business, I had never worked for an agency and I had never even worked with an agency. So I had this vague notion in my head that, “Oh wow, that sounds cool,” but I didn’t really know what I was getting into. It’s a lot of work and it never get easier.

Where will your company be in five years? 

I think my company is going to continue to grow and hire young people, who can bring us along with the newest technology and also the way younger people make buying decisions.

You know, I  I learn a lot from my young employees about how millennials make buying decisions. They make a lot of their buying decisions, they do online research and before they’ll even talk to anybody at a company. They’ve pretty much made up their mind whether it’s buying a car or a house or anything.

I hope that we are continuing to hire younger people and continue to take advantage of all the new technology. I mean, that’s why I started the podcast, because I wanted to sort of display that we are still with it after all these years, still got it going on.

I have a leadership team that I created two years ago. We went through this process that’s outlined in a book called “Traction,” by Gino Wickman. It’s about creating what’s called an entrepreneurial operating system. So it helps institutionalize everything that’s going on in the entrepreneur’s mind. I have this team that can run the business. I still bring in a lot of the new business, because I do have a lot of name recognition. As far as succession planning, I did offer the business to my two sons and they both said they’ve seen how hard I work and they don’t want to work that hard.  So (my)  two son who are  in their 20s are doing other things.

I still love what I’m doing so much, and I want to keep doing it. This team that I have really can run the business. We’ve got all the bases covered. We have operations manuals, and we have employee manuals, and we have systems and processes. So really, why wouldn’t I want to just keep going, as long as I enjoy it? And I can travel. Last week I was in San Diego and the week before I was in Texas. These are our business trips, but they’re a joy for me. I’m on Greenlight, Maine. I do the PR Maven Marketing Minute every week, and I write a column for Forbes.com.

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