Wednesday, September 17

Does Your Content Marketing Consider Customer Complexity?

As much as marketers are working to understand their customers as data points, many of them still need to understand their customers as real people. That is the fundamental challenge with big data — retaining the ability to see the unique individual within the throng of the crowd that it tends to track.

When you separate out one individual from the crowd, even as a thought exercise, it's easier to ask relevant questions. Who is this person? What do they want or need to know? How will they make their decision? What content would they be most interested in receiving? How will they use it? 

With the exception of this space (which is driven by a different purpose), I ask myself these questions every day. And when the opportunity presents itself, I spend time with the people we want to reach. 

People are infinitely complex and you're fooling yourself to think otherwise. 

If I have learned anything in advertising and marketing over the last 25 years, it's that consumer profiling just isn't good enough. While it can be helpful in capturing a snapshot of behavior and communicating it to other marketers or executives, it tends to dismiss the complexity of people.

Understanding people with any sense of depth requires a culmination of layered analysis that considers a dozen different aspects at once. For the purposes of illustration, pretend there are three.

Personality (Core). When you work with so many diverse marketers, you become familiar with all sorts of profiling tools that are designed to better understand people. One of the most useful was considering the four personality types (or nine if you prefer) that identify common foundations people operate from. 

For content creators, knowing that controllers needs to know the bottom line, analyzers want all the details, promoters are looking one step ahead, and supporters want to know how it benefits everyone else, can have a profound impact on content structure.

Learning (Input). As recently included in a guest post published by long-time friend and marketer Danny Brown, people consume information differently. In education, for example, learning styles include: visual (see), auditory (told), kinesthetic (touch), and language (read/write). 

Marketers who know it are much more likely to consider a multimedia approach to their digital marketing efforts. Multimodal communication tends to resonate better and benefit from longer recall.

Behavior (Output). While not everyone appreciates it today as they did when the content was fresh, Forrester Research did an excellent job in mapping out a Social Technographics model (or what many people have come know as the social media ladder). The ladder largely breaks down participants by the activities they are most likely to engage in online. 

These would include content creators, conversationalists, critics, jointers, spectators, and inactives (or passive consumers). How these different groups stack up in the data is interesting, but what is more interesting (from my perspective) is how these communication pools choose to consume, adapt, share, and build upon the content they are exposed to (if at all). 

Considering such dynamic individualities makes marketing invaluable. 

Creating content is one thing, but creating it (and embedding it within a content of diverse communication) so that it appeals to various personalities who consume information differently and respond to it differently is something else all together. If you want maximum attraction, retention, and action then the real challenge becomes one of content agility (covered in an upcoming post) delivered at the right time. 

Naturally, this isn't exclusive to online marketing and content. Real communication is much more immersive and seeks to reach people at the right time in the right environment. And considering how challenging that can be, it only makes sense to make sure the content sent makes sense for everyone.

How about you? Do you have any layers or filters that you have found useful over the years? If you do, I would love to know. The comments are yours.

Wednesday, September 10

Form Follows Function In Everything. Why Not Marketing?

by Louis Sullivan
You can see it anywhere. In microbiology, the genomic organization of cellular differentiation demonstrates it (Steven Kosak/Mark Groundine). In anatomy, bones grow and remodel in response to forces placed upon it (Julius Wolff). In modern architecture, functionalism means the elimination of ornament so the building plainly expresses its purpose (Louis Sullivan). Form follows function.

The underlying emanation behind this philosophy is straightforward, whether designed by nature of mankind. Wolff noted that when loading on bones decrease, they become weaker because they are less metabolically costly to maintain. And Sullivan, who adapted this construct for architecture, looked for efficiency in material, space planning, and ornamentation as a core component of smart architecture.

Form follows function out of an inherent desire for efficiency. 

But that doesn't mean we always get it. Applications, social networks, and websites are largely designed in reverse. Developers, programmers, and marketers construct a form and then ask participants to function within it. And while some have their reasons, few consider efficiency.

Ergo, Facebook didn't launch sponsored posts to help improve the efficiency of receiving status updates of friends and family or organizations, but rather to stimulate ad revenue by creating an artificial model of supply and demand. Twitter doesn't limit tweets to 140 characters as an optimal communication model, but because it believes constraint inspires creativity. Google doesn't organize search to deliver the best information, but rather the fastest information based on 200 unique signals that range from your region to the freshness of your content.

Marketing TodayMarketing has adopted a similar approach. Rather than providing the right content on one network, they explode the same content across every network. Rather than producing valued content, they produce large quantities of low quality content to create pitch sheets. Rather than developing proactive public outreach, more campaigns are built on distraction, disruption, and slacktivism.

As a result, the continued explosion of digital marketing has led to unmanageable change with more marketers leaning on automation as a means to increase their production efficiency with little regard to function — such as organizational purpose or public need. Yes, the budgets are bigger but marketers will eventually have to consider efficiency to maximize budgets and protect themselves from consumer aversion. As they do, most will find pre-social media strategies put function first.

What does function-first marketing and communication look like?

There will always be novel exceptions, but function-first marketing reconsiders the intent of the organization and interests of its audience. Much like Sullivan in architecture, function first means optimizing a balance between aesthetics, economics, experience, and usability. It breaks away from ornamentation design for the sake of cleverness and more toward prioritizing fewer but more cohesive messages where they will have the most impact as opposed to the most reach.

Aesthetics. Creating a memorable brand goes well beyond good design and a recognizable identity. Brand aesthetics bring organizational purpose into the design, creating a second layer of communication that reinforces the organization mission, vision, and values.

• Economics. While everyone loves a big budget, they tend to be the most prone to misallocation. For example, a marketing director can all too easily invest in increasing production content from inferior sources, thereby wasting money on the presumption that it's cheap. Fewer well-proposed pieces from quality sources are likely to have a greater impact and be perceived as more valuable over time.

• Experience. As content marketing is treated more and more like a marketable product in and of itself, organizations looking for maximum impact with minimal means will consider the customer experience at every point of contact. Ergo, link bait headlines would never lead to disappointment.

• Usability. The era of non-functional marketing is nearing its end. Just as social media initially begged organizations to create valuable content, the next generation of communication solutions will be baked into many products in an effort to assist consumers as opposed to distract them.

The real question that marketers ought to be asking themselves is what is the purpose of their organization and the intent of their communication (aside from sales generation). And if those two questions cannot be addressed without any semblance of efficiency for both the organization and the consumer (such as unwieldy sales funnels, capture and call telemarketing, database spam), then it might be time to re-evaluate the budget for something better. Why? Form follows function.

The more often organizations waste their communication efforts, the more likely those actions will eventually have an impact on the form of the company. Always make sure the marketing and communication reflect where the organization is going because form will eventually follow function, for better or worse.

What some additional insights into the future content. See my guest writer contribution to The Future of Content series from Danny Brown. We're right on the edge of something fantastic. And while we didn't see it with the launch of the new Apple Watch today, I fully expect we will in the near future.

Wednesday, September 3

The Best Time Fallacy For Social Sharing

You can read countless opinions about the best time to share content on social networks and come up with all sorts of conclusions. Some people have even published guides about sharing. And other people claim that there is a science behind sharing. Maybe it is science or maybe it's more random.

If it really was science, one would think big data could decipher it by now. Or who knows? Maybe it already did. If you spend a little time reading these articles, most pros are convinced by their metrics.

Some look for peaks in reach. Others avoid peaks in reach.  Some prefer off hours. Others prefer on hours. Some measure peaks in engagement. Others measure other stuff. Some say do what everyone else does. And others? Well, they say Friday.  Friday? Yes, Friday

Take your pick or subscribe to the most common of claims — 1-3 p.m. on Twitter, 1-4 p.m. on Facebook, 5-6 p.m. on Instagram, 8-11 p.m. on Pinterest, etc. — and you will eventually learn one thing. These assumptions are mostly wrong, at least wrong enough that they aren't always right.

Social sharing is largely shaped by three interdependent factors. 

The simple truth is that different social communities consume, engage, and share differently and different content (both in form or function) is consumed, engaged, and shared differently. The very best that anyone can hope for is to assess how their community receives and responds to content.

So where some self-proclaimed data analysts get it wrong is in not considering the entire picture. Ergo, the best time to share isn't necessarily dictated by big data patterns but by three interdependent influencers that established those data patterns. Specifically?

Community Demographics. Demographics do shape some online activity much like they shape broadcast channels, with the exception of increased accessibility at work. Sooner or later, marketers are likely to see age, gender, income level, race and ethnicity as influences (with occupations or interests being big tells too). This is doubly true for brands driving demographics to their accounts.

The point is that musicians and music lovers might be more active between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., graphic designers between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., authors and book lovers at around 11 a.m. and again at 5 p.m. This space, by the way, tends to perform better earlier in the day, especially between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., which corresponds with marketers and communicators getting into work on the East Coast.

Social Media Management. And if you ever wondered why so many social media professionals can make seemingly contradictory claims about the best time, chalk it up to their own design. If a social media manager engages people between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. every day, then it's more than likely they will develop an audience around those times.

In fact, it might even make sense to pick times slightly off from some community demographics in an attempt to reach underserved prospects. Or, depending on resources and strategies, it might make sense to weight more activity during other timeframes. In the case of this space even, I'm partly responsible for that 6-8 a.m. timeframe mentioned earlier.

Content Type And Relevancy. Of course, engagement doesn't begin and end with participants. Not all content is created equal at the same time. For example, a social media manager might find that long-form content, studies, and white papers are best delivered when people are fresh while shorter content and timely information feels better late in the day and early morning.

Not all topics are created equal either. Some are predisposed to natural timeframes. People are more receptive to food porn before they eat rather than after they eat whereas recipes are easier to consume mid-morning and a few hours after dinner. And other special interests (such as programs or television shows) have unique timeframes too. Sometimes it can even be as simple as before and after (and sometimes during) the program.

In sum, the best time to share content has nothing to do with data patterns and much more to do with the factors that created those data patterns, with "do what seems to work" coming in a close second. Even the case of this space, all the external data suggests that I'm publishing at the worst time for a communication blog except the evidence that comes with publishing and sharing at other times.

Wednesday, August 27

Is The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Really A Win?

When marketers think about outcomes, it's hard to argue with numbers. The ALS Association has earned $88.5 million in donations (and counting) this year versus $2.5 million during the same period of time last year.

The nonprofit organization bumped up other numbers too. According to the only national nonprofit organization fighting Lou Gehrig's Disease, they've added 1.9 million in new donors. The reason this new donor count is important is it demonstrates that many of the people taking the ice bucket challenge are donating too. And even if they don't donate, it doesn't matter.

The truncated rules of the ice bucket challenge are pretty simple. If you accept the ice bucket challenge, then you donate $10 and nominate three more people versus donating $100 outright. Your decision has to be made in 24 hours. All nomination videos are shared on social networks.

In sum, this is a viral campaign built on a pyramid scheme that resurrects the campy but famous Faberge Organics tagline "and she told two friends ... and she told two friends" (plus one). So even if someone doesn't donate or refuses, there is a good chance someone else will accept and donate.

There is nothing wrong with that. So why all the pushback? 

As the ALS Association campaign continues to succeed exponentially, the ice bucket challenge has picked up its fair share of detractors. Most of the pushback revolves around seven complaints.

1. Whether or not these donations will cut into other charities.
2. Whether or not it is a giant waste of water and resources.
3. Whether or not animal testing is justified to benefit humans.
4. Whether or not clinical trials justify stem cell research.
5. Whether or not it reinforces slacktivism, which hurts activism.
6. Whether or not this cause is more important than another.
7. Whether or not the challenge has worn out its welcome.

All seven have varied degrees of merit, depending on personal perspective. But other people don't think so, with a few people coming out against those who are against the challenge. So mostly, ice bucket challenge haters beware. Or maybe not. Participation is always best with your eyes wide open.

Matt Damon, for example, tried to demonstrate this by using toilet water instead of drinking water. Doing so created an opportunity to promote clean drinking water in addition to the ALS Association. For other ethical or moral dilemmas, of course, there is no middle ground. Respect that, if nothing else.

Even with some people opting out and other people tired of the challenge, the campaign has reached a tipping point. Two days ago, the ice bucket challenge had only raised $70.2 million. Yesterday, it raised $79.7 million. The numbers suggest the campaign is holding steady at around $9 million a day.

So with all things considered, is the ALS ice bucket challenge a win?

Social media, and social networks in particular, has created a weird obsession with labeling something a win or fail. The ice bucket challenge isn't really either, even if it is a windfall.

On one hand, the organization has clearly raised a record that will likely stand for a long time. It also gained signification attention (and some awareness, which is different), more than it has in a long time. It's also likely that the organization will retain a percentage of those first time donors next year.

On the other hand, the vast majority of donors will not likely donate again. It's also unlikely (but not impossible) that this will become a sustainable action (or non-action as some people like to claim). It might even result in pullback next year, with people saying they did that last year. They did it and they're done, with some people still not sure why they participated in the challenge.

In short, the campaign wasn't brilliant as much as it was the right one at the right time. And as marketers, the real challenge will not be in celebrating the windfall, but in developing a bridge campaign that can transform flash-in-the-pan attention into educational awareness and sustainable action. If the ALS Association can do that, then this campaign (regardless of money raised) is a win.

Otherwise, it can best be described as a happy accident, one that other organizations ought to be wary about trying to duplicate (unless they are prepared to take a shot in the dark). But more than that, the real tell is what happens next. The ALS Association has a tremendous opportunity to create an endowment that will sustain a higher level of research for years to come (unless it believes it is close enough to a cure to push it across the finish line) and nurture support beyond the confines of this lucky long shot (while weathering the strain that comes with it).

Sure, everyone can expect more complaints about the challenge. Some are symptoms of success. Some open up dialogue for other social needs. And some provide a suitable level of transparency because there is nothing worse than someone who regrets their donation because they didn't know this or that. None of these complaints, however, will diminish what the organization has accomplished in terms of fundraising.

So maybe the question that needs to be asked isn't whether the campaign won or lost but whether the campaign achieved its mission to become the most trusted source of information for Lou Gehrig's Disease while demonstrating compassion. And beyond that, like every marketer ought to know, the best question to ask is not whether this is a win but what could the ALS Association have done better, what can it do better next time, and what its obligation is to all those people who supported it.

Wednesday, August 20

How To Stand Out In The Content Marketing Crowd

Maybe it is because marketers have turned more than one quarter of their budgets over to content marketing and as many as 62 percent of all companies outsource content creation, but it seems to be true. More people consider themselves writers today than any other time in history. Someone has to produce the 27 million new pieces of content that are shared each day. It might as well be writers.

Sure, some of them might be designers or public relations professionals or photographers or business owners first, but writing tends to be treated as a verb more than a noun. In fact, even those writers who do embrace it as a noun mostly do so with trepidation. I can't count the number of times that I've heard writers sum themselves up by saying "Oh, I'm just a writer" as if such a thing exists.

I don't really think so. No matter what people call themselves, there are people who write and then there are writers. And no, the distinction isn't only tied to proficiency. It's also tied to sense of purpose.

People who write see the task at hand as something that needs to get done. Writers see it as an opportunity to express an idea and hone their craft. A few don't even have a choice. They must write.

But this post isn't about that minority as much as another. There are some people who write who want to become writers. The only problem for them is that they don't look in the right places. They will never learn how to write a compelling blog post by reading blog posts about writing blog posts. You have to look beyond the medium of content creation to find anything worthwhile. Learn from great writers.

Five thoughts about writing from great writers and what they mean.

1. "If you want to be the writer that you confront 30 years later without shame, then learn to ignore your readers." — Harlan Ellison

Ellison knows that his readers are terrific people and mean well enough. But he also knows that once your readers start to know what they like from you, they will demand it over and over again. If you simply deliver what they think they want, then you will look back and discover you've written the same book a dozen times over or, in the case of content creation, the same post.

People often ask why some of the best content creators come and go. It's very much what Ellison said. If you want to be successful, you'll  have to surrender to writing the same thing over and over. Few people can stomach it, which is why some of the best writers drift over time.

2. "For me, the criterion [of being a great writer] is that the author has created a total world in which his people move credibly." — James Michener

When Michener said it, he referenced works like Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray and Huck Finn by Mark Twain. But then he went on to define it as being able to give your writing its own little cosmos. Doing so gives your writing the sense that it really exists in the real world and gives people the opportunity to accept it.

When content creators talk about doing the same thing in an article or post, they often refer to authenticity. There are bloggers who do it especially well. When you read their work, you almost immediately know it is them because they've lace little bits of themselves into the writing.

3. "My advice to writers who want to write columns is to learn to think, learn about history, learn about economics, learn subjects." — Ellen Goodman 

Goodman went on to describe that journalists writing columns (and we can add bloggers and content creators to her list today) can divide much of what they write into two kinds of stories. There are stories that tell you want happened and stories that tell you what it means. So in order to transcend the experience, you have to know your subject, you have to have a view, and you have to care.

Most content today seems to be written much like Goodman describes. Some writers do something or respond to what other people have done and then write about it. Some writers look for something deeper than the surface observations and add significant depth to the content or perhaps add innovation and clarity to the another field. A few overlap.

4. "There is a terrible tendency in this country to consume art and culture, to try to package it in the same way that all our other familiar products are packaged, and that can be terribly distorting to the work, to the art and culture." — Jay McInerney 

The more a writer allows himself to become processed by the machine, the more their work suffers for it. McInerney warns writers away from becoming too distracted by publicity or critics or anyone. The only thing that really counts, he says, is the writing — the ability to convey a thought, idea, or tangible experience to someone else in such a way that it matters to them.

This is true among commercial writers too. While copywriters, public relations professionals, and even modern journalists are pressured to produce content within the tight confines of what the client or agency expects, what might produce an outcome, or what generates traffic, it's always best to push all that aside while writing the draft. All those other mandatories — packaging that ranges from word counts to headline structures — can wait until later.

5. "If you get too predictable and too symmetrical, you lull your readers into — not a literal sleep — but you put their brain to sleep." — Tom Robbins

According to Robbins, the primary purpose of imagery is never to entertain but to awaken the reader to his or her own sense of wonder. If you become too predictable, the rhythm of the language will eventually languish and lose its angelic  intensity. When that happens, the words begin to lose their emotional impact even if the readers continue to read. You have to find a way to wake them up and engage them.

This is the primary reason you'll see marketers and even some others proclaim their preference for shorter and shorter works. The problem is almost never the length. It's almost always in the rhythm and in the beat. You have to change it up. Wake them up.

Do you really think SEO alone will make one piece of content beat 27 million others?

The writing tips above were pulled, in part, from On Being A Writer, a book that was gifted to me very early in my career. It's out of print now, but readily available as an after-market purchase. I don't know if I would call it the best book on writing there ever was, but it does compile 31 interviews with great writers and poets. Their advice is timeless, even if the book is almost history.

The point of it, I suppose, it that if someone who writes really wants to become a writer, then it's more than worthwhile to look beyond the task and more toward the craft. Learn to be a writer by considering the insights of people like Ellison, Michener, Goodman, McInerney, and Robbins. They all say similar things for a reason. There is an art to the craft that transcends all those other nifty tidbits. And you will find them almost anywhere link bait doesn't exist. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, August 13

When Everything Is Direct Response, Nothing Is Worth Measuring

Ivan Pavlov
Direct response has always been popular among marketers. The allure of it is simple and straightforward. An organization sends out, let's say, 1,000 direct mail letters with an offer and 10 percent of those who receive the offer respond. That is your response rate. That is your return on investment.

I intentionally used the direct mail letter as an example because direct response used to be associated with mail. The truth is, of course, that it has included call to action ads and television commercials, coupons, telemarketing, broadcast faxing, email marketing, and a host of online tactics that range from pop-up ads to paid placement on search engines.

The only reason direct mail remains associated with this niche marketing tactic is because that is where it started, with Aaron Montgomery Ward producing the first mail-order catalog in 1872. This won't always be the case. Direct marketers are more likely to call the field data-driven marketing.

It's still very popular too. In 2012, the Direct Marketing Association estimated $156 billion was spent on direct marketing under its new moniker data-driven marketing. I've read elsewhere that data-driven marketing accounts for as much as 8 percent of the GDP in the United States. That's a ton.

So what's wrong with that? Nothing really, except for the growing number of marketers that are attempting to apply direct response rates to every bit of communication. It doesn't work that way.

People who only measure the immediate suck the results out of their long term. 

If we were talking about fitness, I might liken direct response marketers to people who step on the scale every morning to check their weight. If the scale reads minus one pound, they feel successful. If the scale reads plus one pound, they feel defeated.

Ask someone trying to lose weight and they might even confess that anytime they gain a pound, they are compelled to inventory everything they did and ate the day before as if they could pinpoint its origin. Was it because they cut their cardio short for five minutes? Was it the turkey on their salad at lunch? Was it the half-glass of 2 percent milk they drank at dinner?

Pavlov's Dog
No wonder people who diet are so easily defeated. They are constantly measuring the wrong thing, thanks in part to this odd obsession with weight in most anti-obesity campaigns. But it's a mistake because body composition (not weight) is the cornerstone of a successful fitness program. And to successfully change your body composition, you need process goals as well as performance goals.

Marketing, advertising, and public relations work much in the same way. The total composition of your strategic communication plan has a greater long-term impact than any single piece or part. So while you can measure the direct response of almost anything, one pound either way means nothing.

Where is direct response measurement starting to infringe on effective communication? 

Public Relations. More and more firms are allowing themselves to measure the number of pickups, total impressions, and advertising rate value delivered by each news release. But doing so creates an erroneous impression that some releases or pitches are good and others bad. The truth is, however, that relationships with the media cannot be measured by whether or not a reporter picks up a story. Provided the pitches and releases are grounded in having news value, even if you think they are ignored, they could eventually prompt a reporter to call out of the blue looking for an expert source.

Advertising. Every now and again, I share the story of an attorney who was convinced that the bulk of his marketing budget should be invested in the phone book yellow pages. When asked why, he was perplexed that it wasn't obvious. They spend more money where they get the most response. But that wasn't true. The attorney only received his greatest response from the phone book because that is where he invested the most marketing dollars. A better composition, not more money, eventually delivered a better response.

Social Media. Social media specialists and search engine optimization experts alike are often quick to judge the quality of content — whether it's a video, blog post, or tweet — by any number of direct response measures such as likes, shares, or incoming keyword traffic. While these measures are always good to look at, they also skew the story toward the first impression and not the final outcome or total user experience. Marketers need to remember that reputation is built by the total body of work.

Journalism. More than ever before in the history of media, journalism has become a populist medium. Reporters are less likely to cover stories that the public may find interesting and much more likely to cover stories that the public already finds interesting, which is grounded in direct response. The recent death of one particular actor and comedian may even be the tipping point. I don't recall someone's death ever being exploited as much as this one. But the media won't let up because the response rate is encouraging the exploitation.

There are dozens of examples. It's why Mat Honan can produce a wacky reality simply by liking everything on Facebook. It's why the greedy coin algorithm will usually fail. It's why author-photographer Geoff Livingston couldn't reconcile how the algorithms see art. And it's precisely why most people quit exercising when they don't see their weight change (as muscle replaces fat).

So while direct response will always be worthwhile (especially when it is enhanced by creativity, timing, and proper targeting), it doesn't mean direct response measurements and other algorithms can be applied to everything. If they were then Vincent van Gogh would have been lost to history and the person you're mostly likely to marry is simply quantified by a successive run of good dates.

So don't be fooled. Good marketing only looks simple because it is complicated. Sure, direct response has its place (much like weight) but only if your process goals and performance goals are designed to deliver the right strategic communication composition. And that's the truth, "like" it or not.
 

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