What you can learn from FreshBooks’ Mike McDerment

“Today I have a FreshBooks announcement to share with you. But first, a story almost 10 years in the making…”

And so starts an open letter from Mike McDerment, the CEO and co-founder of FreshBooks, an online company based in Toronto, Canada, that specialises in cloud accounting for small businesses.

The letter, which recently appeared on the company’s blog, is how the company chose to communicate to customers, partners and the media the brand’s change in positioning from ‘online invoicing’ to ‘cloud accounting’.

FreshBooks caught my eye some time back for the way it goes about its marketing. It appears to be very connected with the marketplace so it’s probably no surprise the brand leverages online content and social media better than most companies. It’s also no surprise that McDerment penned an open letter like this.

Here are four lessons – from a brand communications perspective – gleaned from McDerment’s letter:

1. Establish a company blog

Having a corporate blog is a definite plus for companies of all sizes. A blog is an effective tool for all companies because it gives them a global stage from which to tell their brand story, add value and connect with customers and partners; large companies can benefit from a blog for the same reasons but more importantly because it can help an organisation to appear more ‘human’ with posts written by employees and, preferably, senior executives including the CEO.

2. Be open

People appreciate openness and a sense of transparency from company leaders. Earlier this year PR firm Edelman* released its annual Trust Barometer, a global survey that gauges the public’s trust in government, business and the media. One damning statistic from the survey was that only 35% of Australians found CEOs credible as a company spokesperson. Being open and transparent at all times in your communications is one way to win back the trust of people. If you personally have made a mistake or the company has mis-stepped along the way, say so. Be open to your foibles as much as your strengths when the situation requires it and people will respect you (and your brand) all the more for it.

In his open letter, McDerment writes:

“The road hasn’t been easy. It took over 16 months to bring a product to market. When we launched no one cared and 24 months after starting we had only 10 paying customers and revenues of $99 per month. We moved into my parents’ basement for 3.5 years. But despite all the evidence pointing to our failure, we carried on.”

3. Tell stories

Going back to the first line of McDerment’s open letter:  “But first, a story almost 10 years in the making…”

Stories. We humans love ‘em. We’re hardwired to tell (and listen to) stories. It’s in our DNA. If companies in Australia want to improve their levels of communication and engagement with stakeholders, they could do worse than to develop and tell authentic stories that move people to action rather than bore them to tears.

4. Use your own voice

Too many senior company executives rely on the crutch of jargon and ‘gobbledygook management-speak’. Their words, whether spoken or written, are impenetrable to the point that people – customers, employees, journalists – switch off.

Use your own voice, speak to people as you would at a barbecue rather than how you would to your executive board. Don’t try and emulate other CEOs who baffle people with impenetrable language designed not to communicate but to impress. You won’t get your message across and you will lose standing as a leader.

McDerment finishes with: “I know this note was long – perhaps unnecessarily so. I wanted to put it all in one place. If you made it this far, thank you for reading. If you have any questions, feel free to send me an email – I’d love to hear from you.”

When you read this, you know it’s from the heart of the CEO who wrote it and not some highly-polished blurb written on their behalf by the internal PR scribe.

(Oh, and there’s a bonus lesson there: be accessible!

As McDerment writes: If you have any questions, feel free to send me an email. In the letter on the FreshBooks blog, McDerment has embedded a hyperlink to his email so people can write him directly. Rather than back away from communication with his customers, he embraces it).

*Disclosure: I consult to Edelman Australia.


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