Wednesday, August 19

Everything Can Scale, Especially Mediocrity.

When marketers talk about automation, they don't always see the danger in it. Maybe it's because select benefits — lead generation, response counts, data tracking — outweigh most shortcomings.  But then when you move the principles of automation to something even more personal, like health care, it begins to feel frightening.

Health care professional Andy De Lao knows it. He warns that what we're scaling in health care isn't efficiency as much at it is mediocrity. Where care used to be extraordinary, he says, systems are making it "extra ordinary." You can even hear it in the vernacular. Terms like lean, defects, efficiency, output, capacity, scale, workflow, and productivity were all borrowed from industrial manufacturing.

Health care isn't alone. Those words creep up into almost everything nowadays — marketing, culinary arts, education. They seem to be everywhere. And sometimes, not every time, mediocrity follows.

Somewhere along the way, scalability becomes a setback. 

The last time I ate something from McDonald's (several years ago), I was keenly aware that it wasn't the restaurant that Ray Kroc built around the original quick service concept of Dick and Mac McDonald. Sure, phrase like quality, service, cleanliness, and value still exist, but with very different meanings than the original model.

Quality is now couched in comparison, the service is slower, the cleanliness sterile, and the concept of value somehow out of whack with the reality of the product. Half of the menu feels overpriced. Half of the menu feels cheap. What's worse is that the executive team can't seem to pinpoint the problem.

The problem isn't one thing that prevents McDonald's from getting its mojo back. It's everything. What we're witnessing almost every day at the chain is nothing less than a brand hemorrhage.

And the culprit? Scalability and mediocrity finally caught up with the clown. The systems that once made it a brilliant brand have crashed as it traded in a little on the phrases that made it famous.

Isn't this the same problem we're seeing with health care, where planning target volumes, designing intake forms, and timing medical consultations overtake the core function of patient care? Isn't this the same issue with education, where process is starting to beat out innovation? Isn't this the same challenge marketers have when attempting to understand the difference between automation and absenteeism in social media and content marketing?

I think Andy De Lao is right. There is some optimal point where art and efficiency can coexist. He applied it to his field of health care, but see it fits almost everywhere. Nothing great can scale forever.

The answer is simple: Automate the mundane, but not the art. 

Geoff Livingston gets it. He recently traded in writing columns for articles on his blog, noting that it helps set it apart from the more common opinion/posturing pieces that make up most blogs. And while that might seem like an odd analogy for health care, education, and culinary arts, it still fits.

There is nothing wrong with automation that schedules when you share articles, includes a stable of authors you really respect, or even makes you more efficient. But when you begin to phone in whatever if you are offering — blog post, patient care, or college class — mediocrity takes hold.

You see, there are some things that a restaurant kiosk or social scheduling or online class cannot replace. While all of them have merit, the real magic still happens with the human connection — spontaneous sparks that lead us light years away from whatever some mediocre outline prescribed.

Wednesday, August 12

Content Marketing Is Changing Advertising, Not Killing It

Ten years ago, ClickZ published an article that claimed advertising is dying. It's been a common theme there for the better part of a decade. The most recent claim was made just a few days ago.

ClickZ isn't alone. Fortune recently ran an article that cited the exponential growth of ad blocking and how some companies are trying to find workarounds that mitigate the impact (if you can imagine). Others are focused on specific networks where advertising is its own worst enemy, like Facebook.

These articles are all well and good to make you think, but most of them miss the mark in understanding what makes advertising work. Advertising isn't a medium or reliant on any particular media. Fundamentally, advertising is the art of persuasion and it has been around a very long time.

"Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art." — William "Bill" Bernbach, founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB).

As such, you can't kill advertising anymore than you can kill communication. All you can do is change its trust for the times — from attention grabbing special effects to emotionally authentic — and alter its distribution model — from mass media broadcast to social, mobile, digital, and environmentally interactive.

But hasn't the field always done that? The Golden Age of Advertising wasn't spurred on by the birth of television and mass media print alone. It was largely the result of the creative department becoming more important than account executives alone, with mass media serving as a spark only because it meant that a great concept had significantly more reach than any other time in history.

Given that digital has expanded the potential reach of mass media, a second Golden Age of Advertising could be pinned on content marketing, social media, and next generation technologies that will put digital at our fingertips almost everywhere. Maybe all advertising needs is to get back to its roots to be relevant and that means getting back to the creation of great concepts.


The M6 razor commercial is an excellent example. After being freed from the constraints of a 30-second television spot or a single page of print, the creative team behind the concept was able to tell a story that can hold the viewer's interest for three minutes while delivering two persuasive messages.

For my purposes, this 3-minute spot includes a third. While it's always easy to think content is king, it's really the great concept that remains sovereign. One unforgettable message has a real impact.

It also touches on what is wrong with turning out terabyte after terabyte of forgettable content. There is no great concept behind the bulk of content marketing and there needs to be if we want to benefit from the art of persuasion — the heart and soul of advertising. Without it, we're winking in the dark.

Wednesday, August 5

Are There Too Few Analysts In The Field Of Journalism?

There is one place broadcast news continues to beat out print journalism online and it's about time print-to-digital migrants took notice. People aren't looking for news outlets anymore. They are looking for informed experts — analysts, informants, and influencers — who add commentary and consult to their observations of world events and breaking news.

For many journalists, especially those hanging on to the last thread of objective journalism, the concept sends shivers up their spines. It's something different being a columnist or critic than a hard news journalist — writers who prefer to be seen not for their style but for the masthead they make home.

But that's not what people want. They don't want to find the same news in every paper. They don't want truth in media if that means vanilla reporting. And they certainly don't want forgettable bits of top-down information that can be spun out by anyone no matter how hard print tries to maintain it.

Print-to-digital migrants need people that the public can identify.

Sooner or later, print-to-digital migrants have to realize that their decision (some of them, anyway) to cut costs by letting all their veteran journalists go in favor of young, cheap, and desperate writers was a mistake. They needed to double down and transform those old school journalists into quasi-celebrities, a status once reserved for columnists, investigative reporters, and Gonzo journalists alone.

Except, unlike some of their more biased brethren, they need to usher in an era of impassioned objectivists — journalists who aren't afraid to look at the world the way it is (rather than the way they want it to be) and still turn a phrase that causes you to turn your head or wreck you gut or shake you awake. They need to write so well, in fact, that we want to know them by name and trust them to shape our brains.

By shape, I don't mean the advocacy and affirmation news that broadcast serves up on daily basis. What I mean is striving for stories that leave people so deeply informed about a topic that they can form their own opinions. What I mean is writing articles that aren't afraid to dig deeper into topics so we may transcend the tit-for-tat tactics of sourcing two opposing viewpoints who only talk around the surface of the subject. And what I mean is raising the bar rather than insulting the public's intelligence.

How to make print media relevant again with modern reporting.

Just as news publishers are learning in Pakistan, news organizations are learning all over the world: The "power of the press" shrinks exponentially when the public can buy digital ink by the barrel too. In other words, reach ceases to be a value proposition when companies and campaigns frequently beat out the circulation of most major news organizations. So maybe it's time to change it all together.

• Develop more specialists. Whereas news reporters used to be generalists, the public craves to get their information from specialists. This is one of the reasons some research firms have thrived in recent years — they publish content by passionate analysts who are informed, visible, and objective.

Journalists can easily take a page from their playbook or any number of 'new media' publishers that began delivering better content in some verticals than the dailies did, starting almost a decade ago. These people didn't just report the news and other people's views, they provided real analysis.

• Market semi-public reporters. Of course, content wasn't the only place new media started to crush some dailies. Almost every new media publisher and content provider won on personality too. Instead of providing authoritative reporting from under a masthead, the public was treated to a snapshot of the people behind the words.

Much like broadcast has known for years, the messenger can be just as important to the public as the message. In fact, most of the public will even forgive openly biased reporting as long as they feel like they know the person behind it. Ergo, the reporter IS part of the value proposition nowadays.

• Content needs to be intuitive. Ask most people about the ideal length of web content and most of them will skew short. It isn't really true, but plenty of people make a great case for short. Most folks only want a few graphs that sum up everything, they say.

What they really want is tiered content — short introductions that allow them to discern whether or not it's a topic that interests them enough to dig deeper. In fact, I've met more and more people who tell me they use media outlets like Newsy to scan the content and then turn to The New York Times or The Washington Post for in-depth coverage in an attempt to create a DIY hybrid of content agility.

• Multimedia wins the Internet. Sometimes people want to stream clips and other times they want to scan headlines with pics, but they want so much more from anything they decide to dig into deeper. Just as it is having an impact on content marketing it is true for journalism too.

Different people learn differently so they want their content to be visual (see), auditory (told), kinesthetic (touch), or language based (read/write) as it suits them. So knowing this, it only makes sense that digital journalism needs to be multimodal whenever it makes sense — reinforcing whatever story that happens to interest them with maps, infographics, interactive displays, video clips, animation, or anything that make sense.

Maybe all we need are authentic journalists with dazzling content.

While most newspapers have been busy chasing eyeballs to make themselves look more viable than they are, they should have be reinventing their value proposition instead. Consider the obvious.

What if more print-to-digital migrants hired authentic reporters that people could trust to deliver passionate stories that could help us better understand the world? And, what if they did it in such a way that we could preview the content before immersing ourselves in interactive multimodal content?

While no one can be certain, odds are that this kind of publication wouldn't have to worry too much about circulation. In fact, when you look at how people cobble multiple sites together to get the same effect, they wouldn't have to worry about revenue either. Journalism would become relevant again.

Wednesday, July 29

Technology Is Transforming Education Right Before Our Eyes

Education is experiencing a tech revolution, but it's only a single facet of our near future landscape. As much as some standardization is seen as an opportunity to level the educational playing field, technology is simultaneously making education and educators accessible for anyone who wants more.

Some parents, myself included, are becoming keenly aware of the opportunities technology affords our children as it pertains to education. I became especially attentive to it two years ago after discovering that my daughter's reading proficiency wasn't keeping up with her course work.

This summer, thanks in part to a reading program I developed for her, she is reading The Hobbit, which is three to five years above her grade level. Sure, she still struggles with some of the words, but that's the point. I want her to feel challenged.

In fact, since then, her summer education program has expanded beyond reading. Between sites like education.com, skillshare, and code.org, there is no shortage of educational content. It keeps her balanced between free play and other activities like art camps or softball clinics or guitar lessons.

It also keeps her up to speed on core subjects while introducing her to skills that she will be unlikely to learn in school (like coding or graphic design) at her age. And for me, as a university instructor, it provides a sense of how to improve my own classes as well as education in general.

Five opportunities for the next generation in education.

• Standardization will lose out to innovation. Given that an overemphasis in standardized education can lead to stagnation as the bureaucracy that oversees curriculum becomes too slow to adopt new concepts, a next generation solution will help educators get ahead of a subject curve. Best practice lesson plans could eventually populate state or national education centers, with the best of them raising the bar on what the nation considers "standard."

Teachers would be given much more flexibility if administrators received grants and additional funding for best practice lesson plans produced by their schools. The system could also provide incentives for teachers to innovate, giving them a reason to think of their jobs as year round.

• Educators will be rewarded for engaging students. As technology continues to remove proximity from the equation, administrators will discover that their educators are assets to the institutional brand. As it happens, the surge in filling courses with adjunct professors to save money will shift toward attracting top talent that the high school, college, or university can market.

After all, when you can take an online writing course from James Patterson for $90, it makes it much more difficult to justify the $600 course taught by an MFA graduate. As a result, universities will have to get back to the business of bringing in marketable talent — professors who can excite students.

• Liberal arts will evolve into liberal tracks. There continues to be pressure to transform the educational system into something much more vocational. The push to create more vocational schools is mostly attributed to STEM education programs, especially technology, as more people see the field as being future proof in terms of career opportunities.

While this is true, some professors are seeing some slippage in other skill sets that used to be covered as part of a liberal arts education. Specifically, tech savvy students sometimes struggle with public speaking, presentation, psychology, communication, business, and other skills that are associated with liberal arts. New classes (including history and philosophy) will be reintroduced as mandatory electives.

• Employers will reassess how they see candidates. Isolating job candidates based on holding a bachelor's or master's degree (or years of experience) will be supplanted with new measurements. Educational achievement will be balanced to consider an applicant's body of work (such as their programs, applications, campaigns) and ancillary continuing education in addition to their degree.

For example, candidates who have completed emergency management courses offered by FEMA will be recognized as having more educational experience than those who took one or two public disaster communication classes as part of their liberal arts degree. Likewise, a design portfolio or computer program could prove much more predictive in choosing the right candidate.

• Initiative will become a most valued commodity. While initiative will likely never become a class on its own, it will eventually become one of the most sought-after attributes for candidates to demonstrate throughout their educational careers. As such, it needs to be baked into education.

Those students (and, subsequently, candidates) who have a track record for meeting whatever "standards" are set and then go on to do more — sports, extracurricular, leadership, advanced students — will quickly discover that they will have more choices in choosing their educational paths and careers. Where education can stimulate such a trait is in creating a layered approach to education where students can take on additional projects or course material beyond what's required.

My daughter is on two education tracts — one at school and one at home. 

It's easy to become excited by the potential for technology in education, but it isn't technology alone that creates a new landscape. It will take teachers to develop new programs and find suitable methods of application for a variety of audiences. It will take programmers and designers to make the material feel intuitive, and it will take parents to offset everything their children can learn.

For my daughter, her summer program includes math, reading, and writing with science, history, and art on alternating days. In addition to these fundamentals, she also invested a half-hour in guitar and a half-hour in coding before her days ended with softball or baseball practice. She loved every minute.

While some people were taken aback by her enthusiasm for summer homework, she was as passionate about learning as she was for some of the incentives. And that, more than any other measure, reinforced to me that innovation, engagement, diversity, integration, and initiative are what's needed most in education. As for technology, it's potentially the best tool to help us deliver on it.

Wednesday, July 22

Five Steps To Make An Influencer Instead Of Marketing To One

While marketers continue to reach out to social media influencers in the hopes of earning easy traction, it takes much more than a popular or pretty face to capture key performance indicators. Sure, there is plenty of evidence to support influencers have an edge over brand content. But so what?

It doesn't mean you always have to pony up dollars for celebrities and semi-public people to increase brand exposure. You could take an organic approach in attracting third-party voices around your brand and the process to do so will result in deeper, more meaningful relationships.

In the long term, it could also help inoculate your brand against the rising cost of social media stars as brands compete for the same talent and make influencer marketing akin to any other media buy. Of course, this doesn't mean anyone should bow out all together. Influencers have their place.

All it means is that marketers need to remember that a "nobody" can be just as influential as the current somebody. The right person with the right passion only needs a lift to gain real attention.

How to make a topic influencer in five steps.

• Engagement. Discover customers, advocates, and topic enthusiasts who have an authentic passion for your product or service. They may not be "popular" but their passion for your brand is infectious in ways that paid or perked influencers will never deliver. Give these fans some real attention by letting them know your organization noticed.

• Education. Every exchange is an opportunity to learn more about your clients while they learn more about your product or service. Successful professionals have always relied on the art of conversation to learn more about their clients and find new ways to provide real value. Take it a step further online and help people with an interest in your industry become experts.

• Exposure. Almost everyone appreciates a call out for something they say, write, or share online. When they say it about you, make sure you take it a step further than a thank you. Share and provide some context into why it is worthwhile to your organization's audience. If it happens to be about your product or service, even better. Third-party endorsements don't have to be from celebrities.

• Exclusivity. There is no better way to make someone an overnight influencer than giving them something in advance of everyone else. It doesn't always matter what that might be — it could be some news, a video clip, an invitation, or a working demo. The fact they have it first will move them to the head of the class — even if nobody saw them as an influencer before.

• Endorsement. Third-party endorsements don't happen in one direction. As several influencers are nurtured from the ground up, any organization can call them out as rising stars in the industry. Boosting their credibility as someone who knows your products or services as well as (or better than) your organization will lift them to be on par with almost anyone considered an influencer today.

Many of the influencers that organizations want to appease today got their start in much the same way. Nobody really noticed them until an organization or other so-called influencers gave them a lift with a call out, conversation, or mutually beneficial exposure. For many after that, a singular semi-exclusive offer (ranging from cameras to glasses and software to soda) catapulted them upward.

Even those who had the benefit of building a personal brand on the back of a big brand followed a similar path. The only real difference is that the organization accelerated the steps, with their employment or affiliation acting as an immediate endorsement. It doesn't take all that much.

So instead of only thinking in terms of influencer marketing — how to reach existing influencers — organizations need to start thinking in terms of influencer making too. Where aspiring influencers make a big difference is that their brand affinity and the strength of their relationship with a smaller pool of followers puts them in a prime position to quickly build an audience with a level of authenticity that few professional influencers retain over time — at least with the same semblance of passion.

Wednesday, July 15

Specialization Is At The Crossroads Of Tech And Design

As tempting as it might be, don't count the Apple watch out yet. Despite the cottage industry created to deride its entry into the wearables category, sales are steady even if the expectations were off.

The Apple watch was never going to see the same kind of adoption that the iPhone did. And if you thought it might, then you don't understand anything about watches. One size could never fit all. 

If anything, the opposite holds true. The evolution of technology and communication isn't ubiquitous generalization. It's specialization, with the caveat of collaboration — hardware that emphasizes one or two features well while providing access to select applications currently associated with phones.

The Marshall London, The Copenhagen Wheel, And The Leica Q.

There is no shortage of specialization beginning to take hold in the marketplace. And while many of them can be equated a luxury segment, emerging markets a fueling new luxury buyers and their influence over consumer behavior is spreading toward design and specialization. 
  
The Marshall London is an exquisite looking Android Lollipop specially designed for music lovers. Some features include dual headphone jacks, five-band equalizer, and a gold scroll wheel for volume. There is also a dedicated processor for high resolution audio (including FLAC files) at the core of it.

The Copenhagen Wheel is hardware that transforms ordinary bicycles into hybrid e-bikes. But more than that, it transforms any bike into a smart bike, capable of adjusting your workout based on environmental conditions, conveying real-time traffic and road conditions, and even giving you a boost when you need it most.


The Leica Q is a high-end, full-frame camera with a 24MP sensor and no anti-aliasing filter. The design is classic, but the camera doesn't compromise on modern tech specs. The interface enables photographers to use a touch screen or the lens and still delivers the fastest autofocus of any impact full-frame camera. A new WiFi feature also allows for remote shooting from a smart phone.

All three illustrate a shift away from total market disruption and the emergence of tech specializations that fall in line with the convergence of communication and the customer experience. Expect to see such specialization in future renditions of wearable tech too. 

People don't want a fully functional iPhone on their wrists as much as they want a classic timepiece that can also put their database on any screen they happen to direct it toward. But short of that, they are happy with wearables that do only one thing very well too.

Technology and design will reverse the move toward generalization. 

As Apple learns that the design of any watch needs to be significantly more malleable and personal than their initial offering, there may be a reassurance of interest in digital technology. The Apple Watch is certainly a step in the right direction. Now all we need are watches that are watches first (but can power up a display screen too) much like the Marshall London is a music phone, the Leica Q is a camera, and the Copenhagen Wheel is a wheel. And yet, they are so very much more.
 

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