Monday, July 11

Never Mind The Cliche If Its Omission Is A Crime

Every now and again someone complies a list of words that need to be kicked to the curb because the list builder claims such words are overused, overblown, and otherwise tired. Sometimes they're right.

And other times? They aren't so right, at least not so right for everyone. Some people truly deserve the words that others dismiss as overused or in need of being avoided. Maybe you deserve some too. 

The real crime seldom has to do with a word being cliche, but rather the author or orator using a phrase or opinion that betrays a lack of original thought — power word and omit lists, inclusive. 

"The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean." — Robert Louis Stevenson

The problem faced by many authors or orators isn't the word they choose but the way they go about choosing it. Instead of investing time to find the right word, they rely on tips and tricks that follow the pendulum swings between popularity and platitude. So rather than ever finding the right words to describe themselves, all they ever do is describe the trends that surround them. 

What they ought to think about instead is writing straight, honest prose that lends clarity to their meaning. A serial entrepreneur is something who has incubated a string of successful startups. A strategist is someone who envisions something new or at least reframes it in an unconventional way. Some of them might even be called innovative or collaborative, depending on their approach. 

The same can be said for any of the nineteen words called out for being hyperbolic. If they apply to you, continue to stand your ground and use them. But if you only grabbed onto to them because they looked good as part of someone else's message, then heed the warning and take the lesson to heart.

Skip manipulations, cognitive distortions, and pretend qualities that you or your company might profess and focus in on those qualities you really do have. That's all anybody really wants nowadays. They want the truth (or as close as you can come to it) with neither exaggeration nor omission.

Sunday, December 20

Once Upon A Red Rocket: A Short Story For The Holidays

Once Upon A Red Rocket
by Richard Becker

Lizzy Capland outflanked the outstretched hands of the man in the Santa suit and sat down on the bench beside him. She had turned 11 last June, far too old to sit on someone’s lap.

 “Too old to sit on my lap but not too old to see me,” mused Santa from behind the big white curls of his beard. “Well, hello there.”

“Yes sir, I’m too old. I mean, no sir,” said Lizzy. “I’m not here to really see you. I mean…”

Santa drew up an eyebrow, waiting patiently for her explanation.

“Well, I’m here to see you, obviously,” said Lizzy nervously, trying to find the words. “But I’m here to see you for my brother. He’s eight.”

 “Oh, I see,” said Santa Claus. “And what is his name?”

“Johnny,” she said. “Only he likes to be called John now. It makes him feel older.”

“Yes,” Santa said as if remembering something before offering her a wink. “He’s still Johnny to me too.”

“Then you probably know why he couldn’t make it here himself,” she said, breathing out the words in anxious desperation. “He’s terribly, terribly sick. He has leukemia.”

“It’s all right, child,” he said, putting a bear of an arm around her. “It’s all right.”

“Well, no sir. It’s not all right,” she fought back the tears. “But that is why I came to see you. I want to ask you for a Christmas miracle.”

“Oh, my dear, dear girl,” his voice dropping from merry tenor to a whispering baritone. “As much as I wish I could move heaven and earth to heal all children, it is beyond my powers.”

“I know Mr. Claus,” she said, regaining her composure. “I’m not asking for you to heal him.”

“Then what can I do for you?”

“There is only one present on Johnny’s Christmas list this year,” she said.

“Tell me what it is and I’ll do my best.”

“He wants a rocket ship.” “A rocket ship?” said Santa. “I can certainly do that. What kind would he like? A red one that takes his imagination to outer space or a blue one that can blast off because it’s water propelled or maybe something with a remote control?”

“No sir, you don’t understand,” she squirmed. “Johnny doesn’t want a toy rocket ship. He wants a real one.”

“A real one?”

“Yes, sir. We both know you can’t cure him,” said Lizzy. “But maybe you could build him a rocket ship so he can travel to someplace where he wouldn’t have to be sick anymore.”

“Lizzy,” Santa sighed.

“Please, Mr. Claus? You just have to do something for him.”

“You dear, sweet girl,” he said, shoulders slumped. “This isn’t something I can promise …”

“I know,” she said, defeated. “It’s okay. I knew you weren't the real Santa Claus anyway. What would the real Santa be doing in a mall a few weeks before Christmas?”

“What I was going to say, Lizzy, is that it isn’t something I can promise,” he continued. “But if you believe and I mean really, really believe with all your heart … maybe your wish will come true.”

“You really mean that?”

“It’s Christmas, Lizzy. We are celebrating the anniversary of the miracle of miracles.”

“Oh, thank you, Santa!” Lizzy exclaimed, turning to hug him. “I’ll believe. You’ll see. I’ll believe.”

“I have faith in both you and your brother,” said Santa. “In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the biggest rocket ship you’ve ever seen wasn’t waiting for you and your brother on Christmas Day!”

“Christmas Day? Oh no, that won’t do,” Lizzy said, pulling back. “That won’t do at all.”

“Why not?”

“They don’t know if my brother will make it to Christmas Day,” said Lizzy. “We need it much sooner than that.”

“I see,” Santa sighed again, cupping his chin in thought. “This really is a puzzle.”

“I know,” she said. “It isn’t something you can promise.”

“It doesn’t matter what I can or can’t promise, Lizzy,” said Santa, laying a finger to her heart. “All miracles start from the inside out. Don’t give up on your dreams.”

Lizzy didn’t say a word as she first stood up. The once short line to see Santa Claus had swelled from to two children to nearly twenty, ranging from toddlers being held by enthusiastic mothers and fathers to six-year-old kids with shopping lists spooling out of one hand while using the other to tug at their tired-eyed parents who had become far too practiced in the annual ritual to be engaged.

The length of this line, along with the growing impatience of those waiting, seemed to break Lizzy from her spell. Time was no longer standing still. The rest of the world was waiting.

“You’re not such a bad guy for a mall Santa,” she said. “Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas, Lizzy” he said. “Don’t forget. Miracles happen from the inside out.”

She didn’t say anything else nor did she look back over her shoulder as the merry tenor of Santa’s voice returned. He was asking the next kid in line a litany of questions with the same sing-song familiarity of seasons past. For weeks, she had prayed for her brother to be able to visit Santa and hear them too, but those prayers had gone unanswered.

“Did you tell Santa everything you wanted?” asked her mother. “Yes,” said Lizzy, avoiding eye contact.

“So what was at the top of your list?”

“Oh, you know,” said Lizzy. “I really want a gift card to Justice.”

 ***
This is the first of a four-part short for the holidays. If you would like to read the balance of "Once Upon A Red Rocket," you're invited to find it here on my fiction Facebook page. It's where I publish most "first look" fiction material from time to time. Good night, good luck, and Happy Holidays! 

Wednesday, December 2

The Accidental Hiatus After Ten Years. How Life Happens.

A few weeks ago, a long-time friend and colleague sent me a question via Facebook. It was startling to read but not because of the content. It was startling because my immediate response didn't feel right.

"Hey brother, did you quit blogging?"

"No" was my most immediate response but then I stopped myself from pressing send. I hadn't published a stitch of content in more than four weeks — my first sustained break from blogging in more than ten years. "No" just didn't seem to cut it, especially since I was asking myself the same question.

Did I quit blogging?

No, not really. It just happened. Life had become unexpectedly busy in the weeks leading up to my presentation at the NRPA 2015 Conference and never slowed down. It only accelerated. Between a whirlwind series of conferences and conventions, both parents having health scares, and a fully integrated work-life schedule, there wasn't any time left in the day. I decided to skip one week.

One week quickly escalated into two weeks. It was four weeks by the time my friend messaged me — an unexpected hiatus that I didn't have time to really address. Add four more missing weeks to it.

He didn't seem to mind. There may have even been a note of envy in the back of his head. He is coming up on the 10-year anniversary of his blog and thought giving himself permission to write and publish when he wants sounded pretty appealing. Never mind that my hiatus was never so intentional.

It will be going forward. Permission granted.

No, I am not going to quit blogging. I am, however, going to take a page from my friend's unwritten playbook to write and publish when I want without a second thought of maintaining a schedule. Sure, this might sound counter intuitive for anyone who knows anything about social media. Consistency, after all, is part of any well-executed communication plan (especially social media). I stand by it.

Except, here is the thing. My blog has never been part of a communication plan or distribution channel for my company. It could have been, but it wasn't. My goals were always more holistic within the context of education, experimentation, and engagement. Some of this still applies.

Some of it doesn't. While there will always be a place for articles and essays, the social media landscape has changed and it is on the verge of changing again. Social networks are mostly better places for engagement than blogs (even for those of us who lament the loss of long format thought exchanges that still happen but not often enough). Experimentation has mostly moved off blogs and onto other platforms and technologies (except for writing and thought exercises). And that leaves education, which is one reason why I'll never shutter the space. This has been and continues to be one of the best places to sketch ideas, receive feedback, and provide students of mine with extracurricular education — previews and supplements to material I've made part of my classes.

I'll likely spend more time in the classroom. Spring 2016.

Some of the best material I've contributed to the field for the better part of a decade has arguably come out my classrooms. Students bring in some of the most interesting case studies and questions — puzzles that inspire problem solving for the here and now or long-term future. And in the upcoming year, I'll find my feet planted firmly on two campuses.

I have four classes scheduled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, during what I hope will be an interim schedule before continuing to build out a new Integrated Marketing Communication certificate program — with more than 40 different classes that would appeal to both working professionals and career explorers. The time is really right to introduce this program, but students are welcome to take any of the following in the interim.

Editing & Proofreading Your Work from 9 a.m. to noon on Feb. 6. This half-day program continues to be a staple for anyone interested in refining the written word by it making clear, concise, and grammatically correct. It focuses on all the essentials associated with solid writing mechanics.

Writing For Public Relations on Thursdays from Feb. 18 through April 21. For ten weeks, students learn to master a variety of writing styles and understand how best to apply them to news releases, fact sheets, biographical sketches, feature stories, media kits, and social media. Expect to write.

• Editing & Proofreading Your Work from noon to 3 p.m. on June 6. This is an encore session of the February class, except offered in the afternoon for students unable to attend a weekend session. The format is the same, but every class is different as it adapts to new people and perspectives.

Shaping Public Perception: Next Step Social Media from noon to 3 p.m. on June 25. When Social Media for Strategic Communication began to feel too mainstream, I knew it was time to expand beyond the confines of social media being a communication "medium" into a fully integrated and incredibly immersive multimedia strategy for public relations, marketing, advertising, and human resources. In a nutshell, this class explores what is happening and what is happening next.

Along with these classes, I have also been invited to teach (and accepted) a full semester course at the College of Southern Nevada. This experimental class cuts to the core of where communication is headed today. Employers are looking for a new generation of multi-disciplined professionals.

Writing For Design on Tuesdays from Jan. 19 through May 15. Search for class 35048 to enroll in a course designed to help designers master several modern writing styles that are in demand — copywriting, content marketing, and self-promotion across social networks and other media. This lecture-lab class will help students become familiar with message development, product differentiation, and brand voice while learning to understand how words and design converge.

With these five classes already slated for the spring, there will never be any shortage of topics to revisit from time to time, even if I no longer intend to keep a schedule. It is part of a bigger change.

The not-really-so-accidental hiatus. How times change.

I alluded to a direction a few years ago and I've stayed the course ever since. It came from the realization that the quantity of time we have is not as important as the quality. The thinking applies everywhere.

As I started to remake my life and profession in a very different fashion, I decided that I only had time for a handful of the very best clients I could find and not just any client I could find. This might sound as counter initiative as my opening graphs to anyone who ever wanted to build a business.

Except, here is the thing. I'm happy helping a few people build their businesses or organizations and no more than that. I'm not really looking to build another business of my own anymore. And this realization provides me a luxury that very few people get to enjoy until they are almost worn out.

Nowadays, I have to love my clients or they are not my clients. There are no exceptions. At the first sign of angst, I resign the account with no hard feelings. And, not surprisingly, for those relative few I keep close — I am increasingly passionate and proficient in everything we do. It's magical.

As I've written before: Everyone is driven by something. We can choose what drives us. I'm driven by helping a few great people who lead some amazing organizations, teaching a few students with limitless potential, living my life surrounded by the people who matter most, and carving out a few more hours out of my week so I can write stories that have been held hostage far too long by a fixed schedule. That's all there is and it's enough to fill me up — it's more than most people ever have.

How about you? If you could be driven by something, what would it be? And once you've settled on a few ideas, give yourself permission to ask why you aren't letting that desire drive you as if all that time you think you have in the world has almost run out. It had run out. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, September 16

The Future Of Marketing Is Smart For Consumers And Parks

Whether you know it as the Internet of things, enchanted items, or smart objects, the convergence of technology and marketing and customer experience will be a technological revolution. Call it smart.

It will be smart in terms of the technologies that are being announced and introduced daily — smart clothing, force touch, or innovative sports analysis tools — and smart in terms of the portable, multimodal (sight, sound, touch, readable), and interactive content that will be both functional and valuable to consumers. And it will finally drive home the idea that marketing and the customer experience is the same — from the very first touch point to the decision to upgrade or resupply.

Shaping Public Perception - The Next Step In Social Media 

For a few hours on Wednesday, the next step in social media was very much on topic for the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) 2015 Annual Conference. It was one of the first opportunities I've had to share new insights into how marketers are going to adapt — and what they might learn from the psychological and sociological insights of Yuval Noah Harari and Donald Hoffman. Take a look.


While my published decks never contain all the content delivered during any educational session, one of the more theoretical premises I've been exploring to date suggests that if humans live with a dual reality (objective reality and conceptual reality) as Hoffman suggests and Harari alludes to as the fundamental skill set that allows us to cooperate with flexibility and in very large numbers, then it could be true that the marketing/branding/public relations (the conceptual reality of any product) of a product can account for as much as half the value (or perhaps more depending on the product).

I expect this will play out in the near future as new technologies, some of which are included in my deck, fuse communication efforts and customer experience. After all, value is rarely determined by the objective reality of an object. It is more often determined by a conceptual reality — the mythical made formula — that we collectively agree upon. Maybe. I'd love to know what you think.

A quick closing recap on the NRPA 2015 Conference. 

Aside from this theoretical thrust of my presentation, it's interesting to note that parks and recreation departments across North America are still struggling with the practicality and tactical ability of social media (like most organizations). Most questions during the Q&A portion of my session dealt not with what is next, but rather what could be done right now to address time famine, message mitigation, brand management, and the pressures of constant change.

I'll be giving each of these topics space in the upcoming weeks, providing more depth and resources than what I could provide in a few seconds from the stage. I hope this short series really helps.

Special thanks to the 250 professionals (and live streaming viewers) who attended my session out of about 7,000-9,000 conference attendees, NRPA, and long-time colleague Dirk Richwine. I had an absolutely fantastic time speaking at the conference and look forward to our next opportunity.

Wednesday, September 9

The Shrinking State Of Social Media

Since social media started to make a move toward the mainstream about ten years ago, the general direction was expansive. People wanted more of everything — more friends, more fans, more followers, and just more. In fact, 'more' is the model where most marketing plans are focused.

The market, however, has changed and the once ever-present quest for an expansive presence has already shown signs of contraction. As many as 36 percent of smartphone owners are finding smaller audiences with messaging apps such as WhatApp, Kik, iMessage, and Path. Snapchat and Wickr have seen an uptick in usage too — about 17 percent of smartphone owners use apps that delete messages.

Such platforms are especially more popular with young adults, ages 18 to 29. Among this group, almost half use messaging apps and 41 percent use apps that automatically delete messages. Even recently popular networks like Pinterest and Instagram have cooled off among social nomads despite marketers trying to retool social platform strategies. (Maybe they've cooled off because of them.)

More isn't much of an answer when most people want less. 

Sure, Facebook has become as innocuous as the Internet, with 72 percent of all adults with an account. (Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, and Pinterest all hover around 25 percent.) But look at the reasons. Facebook does an excellent job creating the illusion of privacy while simultaneously shortening any marketers reach through targeted delivery and exposure limitations.

One would think marketers might take note. It's less, not more that usually wins for them on this social platform. More only happens when it contains a concept built on attraction (as opposed to broadcast). Take a look at 30 different campaigns and the common denominators are there.

• Successful campaigns are tied to something beyond digital.
• The initial distribution method is aimed at customer attraction.
• Most campaigns are built on engagement and participation.
• The content has appeal beyond its narrowly defined audience.

The lesson reads like one of the rules right out of copywriting school — less is more. And in this case, less is more because attraction marketing continues to beat out interruption marketing on a regular basis much like most people (except celebrities) are shrinking their networks to include a much smaller circle of friends — those they happen to meet in person and see somewhat regularly.

Not that this should surprise anyone. The emphasis on 'social' over 'media' was always the intent.

Wednesday, September 2

Why Do Marketers Still Struggle With Decision Making?

By most accounts, CMOs are increasing their organizational spending on social, mobile, and analytics. One recent study places this budgetary increase at 12.2 percent over the next year.

The increase is in addition to social media spending, which already accounts for more than 10 percent of most total marketing budgets. In five years, this same spending will eventually account for about 25 percent of most total marketing budgets. And none of this news should surprise anyone at all, especially with the increased attention that marketers are giving to the growth of online video.

Digital marketing and social media are mainstream even if measurement remains somehow elusive to marketers. 

What should surprise people instead is that marketers readily admit that they don't really know how to measure the outcome of their efforts. In fact, only 15 percent of CMOs say they have successfully proven a quantitative impact associated with their social media efforts. Conversely, 41.5 percent of marketers haven't been able to show any impact from their social media efforts. The mind boggles.

This apparently nagging inability to measure outcomes is a symptom and not the problem. The problem is how many organizations lack a marketing or communication plan and, even more commonly, how many lack good marketing or communication plans. If they did have good plans, measurement wouldn't be a problem as the key has always been to set realistic and measurable goals.

It's almost impossible to measure outcomes that aren't tethered to objectives. 

Likewise, it's almost impossible to not be able to measure outcomes if they are tethered to realistic, measurable, and specific objectives. And ideally, those objectives will be drawn from the organization's mission, vision, and strategic plan.

Why is this important? Because specific business goals — along with considerations like product or service life cycle, market share, consumer base, competition, proximity, resources and self-imposed restraints — lead to very specific marketing and communication goals. Consider just a few of them:

• Introduce new products or services. While awareness is worthwhile, introducing new products and services means more than people knowing something exists. Communication objectives can be grounded in outcomes like market position, brand recognition, and value proposition retention.

• Capture market share. Given market share is a key indicator of competitiveness among competitors and market viability. Subway, for example, focused on market share when it stopped defining its market as sandwich shops and started attacking the quick service market.

• Become an industry leader. Most companies that strive to be industry leaders market the influence of the leaders and knowledge of their industry more than they do their products or services.  Becoming a trusted source increases credibility and results in significant market advantage.

• Improve customer loyalty. Organizations that want to increase customer loyalty invest in marketing that reinforces individual relationships, personalization, and the best possible customer experience. Some include incentives, but only those that reinforce positive customer experience.

• Increase product profitability. Sometimes reining in a marketing plan, pushing loss leaders, or reducing non-productive expenses can mean more to a company than expansion. The same objective can also include add-on items that require no additional marketing and well-timed follow-up sales.

• Increase gross sales or revenue. Increasing sales (units sold) and revenue (money made) can sometimes be likened to a throwaway objective in that sales and revenues are often the natural outcome of every objective listed. So if you include this objective, make it specific — X percent of increase in the marketing budget will generate X percent increase in sales within three or six months.

• Become a good corporate citizen. Responsible corporate citizens that support the communities in which they operate often benefit from increased visibility, credibility, and opportunity. Outreach programs can be especially effective when they lift up communities, creating the most potential customers.

• Foster a strong corporate culture. Whether the objectives is tied to acquiring top talent or is more market oriented in better meeting the needs of the customer, a strong corporate culture pays dividends by positioning the company from its people out. Allocating more to internal communication can help.

• Nurture ideas and innovation. When companies make this their objective, marketing enjoys a pretty clear directive that their content and creative ought to aspire toward the same goals. Apple used to be the best example in marketing innovation but not so much nowadays.

• Increase store or website traffic. If this is the objective, it almost always has to be tied to some residual effect such as lead generation, conversation, or community building. The challenge with the concept is to keep it relevant so the traffic counts don't lose customers for life in the process.

• Shape public opinion. If we remember that the primary objective of any marketing and communication program is to change behavior or public opinion, then it stands to reason our objectives ought to define what change we anticipate. Once launched, measure the change.

Naturally, these objectives (most of which would need to be fine tuned and more specific to work) only scratch the surface. There are dozens and hundreds of organization-specific objectives that could be taken into consideration, including proximity, community culture, competition, etc. (For example, a marketing plan for an Asian restaurant in China Town would look very different from a plan in a suburb without one or a farm town without many dining options.)

In fact, these variables (and marketing's unwillingness to accept they exist) are the primary cause for confusion. Too many marketers are looking for some holy grail of marketing plan and outcome measurement that somehow manages to cast the whole of marketing (and each of its tactics) into a plug and play template. But outside of making a few marketing consultants rich on 10-step books in the short term and shifting marketing budgets to social, they work for relatively few organizations.

So before your organization jumps on social, mobile, and analytics wagon, make sure any budget increases are tied to strategic objectives that can be readily measured. Who knows? You might discover a different communication vehicle for your company, one your competitors would never consider.
 

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