Wednesday, February 25

Why Some So-Called Losses Are Really Wins In Disguise

My son had been staying after school for months, hoping to land one of 14 spots on the junior varsity volleyball team. It seemed like the ideal spring sport for him to balance out football in the fall.

He worked hard at it whenever possible, missing only one practice since the intramural pre-tryout program had begun. He was a dedicated player and progressed at a faster pace than most of his peers. When you asked any of them, they expected to be cut well before him. Except, they weren't cut.

In what seemed to be a split decision among the coaches, he finished one or two spots short out of the 30 some kids who were vying for a position. Even after one of the coaches told him coldly that he was "athletic, but not for volleyball," another coach openly disagreed and told him to come out next year.

Maybe he will. Maybe he won't. His more immediate challenge was that he had missed all the mandatory meetings for any other spring sports. It's a tough spot to be in, something long-time marketer and author Geoff Livingston described as being the "first loser." It sucks to be thisclose to a win.

Our compulsion to tally up wins and losses feeds an unproductive fantasy.

For some people, wins and losses can be very real. You either pass an exam or you don't. You win the state championship or you don't. You are hired for the position or you aren't. So on and so forth.

But mostly, our incessant need to make tally marks in the win/loss column is all a bunch of rubbish. One exam isn't a measure of subject mastery. The final score isn't an adequate measure of true performance. The position you're passed over for might be turn out to be your biggest win ever. 

The point here is pretty simple. Not only does our overemphasis on any given win or loss become a distraction from some yet-to-be-seen success, we tend to frame them all up with too much idealism. You see, winning doesn't mean everything will end well any more than losing means that you have something more to learn. Either outcome can produce the opposite of whatever it is you are looking for in the long term and you may never really know what that other outcome might have been.

As the old saying ought to go, the only thing worse than losing an account is winning a bad one. Bad accounts can burn up time with unrealistic service demands or relentless change orders, cost a company its solvency with late payments or by defaulting on any credit, and damage reputations by underplaying contributions or making vendors scapegoats for their bad decisions. They can make you crazy trying to keep them, sometimes at the expense of any underperforming but stable clients. So who knows? Maybe the universe did you a favor by spinning the wheel of fortune one spoke short.

As long as you keep doing, you will eventually have your fair share of wins and losses. And with any luck, the balance among all of them — and the real outcomes to follow — will one day amount to a legacy that you can pay forward. Because that, not any tiny win or loss, is what life is really about.

The best thing that never happened to my son was making that team. 

In less than 24 hours after being turned away from the volleyball team, my son received an unexpected text from one of his friends. While all the mandatory meetings for track had passed, the team was still looking for a few athletes to try pole vaulting. He was unsure, but undeterred.

When my son turned out on a day that the pole vaulting coach didn't make it, he asked to the practice with the shot put throwers instead. Three throws later, the shot put coach signed him to the team. Despite never having tried it before, the coach noted his perfect form and throwing potential. Now he's weighing whether he should focus exclusively on shot put or try pole vaulting too. 

Either way is a win-win decision for him. The fact that he has this decision to make tells a story that is very different from the one that opened this post. When he didn't land a spot on the junior varsity volleyball team, it opened up the opportunity for him to land a variety spots on the track team.

So was the set up really a loss? Or was it a win? Or does it merely prove one of my friend's favorite quotes that attitude is superior to circumstance? I don't know, but I'm leaning toward the latter. Losing assumes one has something to lose and most people don't. We either set out to win or merely break even. So just keep doing as long as you are happy in the pursuit of it. Being able to pursue it is the win.

Wednesday, February 18

Your Primary Objective As A PR Writer Is To Be Understood

clarity in writing
All writers share a common objective, regardless of their mission, medium, or industry. They all strive to convey a message that makes sense. And yet, very few of them really do.

Sure, some might nowadays argue that mission critical is to get clicks/eyeballs, generate leads, or miraculously prove their worth with direct sales. But while all of that sounds fine and good, such convoluted communication missions often get in the way of good business by scarifying clarity.

The truth is that it’s often those goals that get content into trouble. In an effort to attract more attention, sound like a subject matter expert, and push more sales, they say the wrong things, complicate their meaning, and destroy trust by selling too hard. In most cases, all these writers needed to do was one thing: to be better understood.

It works. You win anytime you can deliver the right message to the right audience in such a way that they readily understand it, remember it, and respond to it. Clarity comes first.

Five benchmarks for better clarity in writing.

Be Readable.
While anyone with an intense interest in a subject will read the worst writing (when there are limited sources), people generally ignore content that demands too much effort.

Be Conversational. While style ought to suit the medium and the organization, the most widely read content on the Internet tends to be human, fun, and informative. It reads like we talk.

Be Spontaneous. Much like music, movie, and media industries have discovered, formulas have a short shelf life before readers find them to be stale, uninteresting, and something to avoid.

Be Descriptive. Definitions can be useful, but descriptions are easier to understand and remember. They tend to touch our emotions in ways that definitions seldom do.

Be Focused. One point is always more powerful than 50. When you consider people are bombarded with more than 100,000 messages every day, having them remember even one is quite an accomplishment. Choose that point wisely.

Some of this might read like common sense, but most experienced writers will tell you that believing in these five benchmarks is far easier than executing them. All of us are guilty of cluttering our best content with clever writing, filler to flesh out the word count, or some lofty objectives that make clients happier than their customers at one time or another.

We might even pat ourselves on the back for a job that feels well done when we turn in or click publish. It might not even be until weeks or months later that we’ll stumble across the old content and mutter that for all the accolades we missed the mark. All people really want is a few paragraphs of honest prose that they can understand and appreciate for its value, significance, and directness as something they can apply to their everyday life or, at least, help them in making better decisions.

Even in this case, it all comes back to one thing. Clarity is the content that people remember.

Wednesday, February 11

The Psychology Of Facebook Can Get A Little Bit Crazy

As much as marketers hold on to hope for the promised land of big data — one algorithm to rule them all and in the darkness bind them — the information they covet remains convoluted. Big data can't crack what consumers don't share because algorithms play by the program rules and people never do.

One such study making the rounds even proves the point in its attempt to demonstrate the opposite. Despite some headline capturing claims that Facebook "likes" can assess your personality just as accurately as your spouse (and better than your friends), most people were miffed when they accepted an open invitation to take the algorithm for a test run. It seems that results vary.

The algorithm developed by Michal Kosinski at the Stanford University Computer Science Department, for example, pinned me down as a 25-year-old single female who is unsatisfied with life (among other things). It wasn't the only data fail among other friends who tried it. The model missed and missed and missed. There are reasons why, with mine being the easiest to decipher.

My personal usage of Facebook is best described as treating a few minutes out of every day as casual Friday. My connections are mostly limited to friends, family, and long-time online acquaintances. My principal activities include catching up with what they are doing, sharing stories about my children, and posting the occasional baked goods pictures. Why? Because I don't really do that anywhere else.

I also make a conscious effort to avoid controversy, not because I'm "agreeable" but because that social network isn't a place I want to invite deep discussion, debate, or any drama. And what that means is, in sum, that only a sliver of my personality comes across on Facebook. For others, I'm told, the assessments are wrong for a different reason. Not everyone is completely honest on Facebook, not all profiles are complete, and people "like" different pages and things for reasons you never expect.

Why big data models miss the mark with psychological stereotypes. 

Beyond the most obvious — that any algorithm is only as good as the input it is allowed to compile — there is always unexpected trouble when stereotypes are introduced into a psychological test. According to the aforementioned model, the algorithm assumes people who like "Snooki" or "Beer Pong" are outgoing and people who like "Doctor Who" and "Wikipedia" are not. Men who like "Wicked, The Musical" were defined as more likely to be homosexual and those liking "WWE" or "Bruce Lee" were not. Those who like "the Bible" are said to be more cooperative while those who like "Atheism" are competitive. And so on, and so forth.

Says who? Says some of the data that came from the myPersonality project designed by David Stillwell, deputy director of the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge. Between 2008 and 2012, myPersonality users agreed to take a survey, which asked participants about their personal details and personality traits. Their answers were then assigned to buckets such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and emotional stability. (The new test delivers those results too.)

But no matter how those results are derived, the best an algorithm can do is capture a data point and put it in a bucket. It has a much harder time recognizing intent, realizing something a human might notice like, let's say, that Joey isn't pregnant but his cousin June might be. The baby shower is coming up and he has been searching for and liking pages that might give him an idea of what to buy.

Stripped of any overreach that would paint Joey as an expectant mother, there is one area where analytics sometimes succeed. It might recognize that Joey is in the market for some baby gifts (assuming this deduction is made before and not after he finds a gift). Or perhaps, if Joey has also liked certain television shows, then one might deduce that he would be interested in similar shows. Or perhaps, some data might be employed to fine tune the tone of a message much like direct mail writers once did using PRISM research data.

But even then, minor research advantages were tempered by Rule No. 7 in Advertising in the past. It's the rule that reminded commercial writers that people tend to lie. They are predisposed to "like" things (or even "list" things in a Neilsen ratings book) that make themselves look a little brighter, better, smarter, or savvy regardless of what they really watch, like, or do. They also tend to share more positive life events than they do negative ones, connect and disconnect with people more easily, and like pages that friends recommend because they think they are doing their friends a favor. Maybe.

The irony in that? Some studies suggest that social networks can unintentionally contribute to depression, indicate anxiety related to relationship insecurity, and become as addictive as cocaine.

And while all three studies might provide an interesting read, marketers could probably learn more about their markets from the SizeUp tool provided by the Small Business Administration; any number of other affordable data providers like SEC filings, BizStats, or even the United States Census, or proven research methods such as consumer interviews, focus groups, and tests with a control group.

Does that sound too time consuming, cumbersome, or expensive? Then just wait until you see how expensive a product or service launch can be based on social network data alone. It's a little bit crazy.

Wednesday, February 4

Anyone Can Hate A Press Release. You Need Courage To Love It.

News Release Struggles
If there is a single piece of public relations communication that everyone seems to loathe, then let it be the press release. Journalists hate them because they are often poorly written irrelevant non-news bites. Public relations practitioners hate them because they're boring to write, seldom read, and rarely get the job done. Business people hate them because they are at the heart of many PR nightmares.

It's true. One would be hard pressed to find a piece of short-form communication that has been blamed for more heartburn, headache, and hemorrhages than a press release. Averaging a mere 450 words, there seems to be nothing more vile. They are received with the same appreciation as an STD.

"Did you get what I sent you?" asks the practitioner forced to make the call.

"Yeah, I did. I'm seeing my doctor today," mumbles the journalist before hanging up.

This type of exchange is a far cry from where the press release started. The first modern press release is most often attributed to Ivy Lee, whose agency released information regarding the 1906 Atlantic City train wreck. The idea was to provide a statement to journalists ahead of rumors and conjecture.

From this, the release began its steady evolution at the hands of practitioners who used it brilliantly, not so brilliantly, and sometimes with unscrupulous intent. The most common problems include bad writing, inaccurate information, irrelevant content, and one of the most liberal definitions of what constitutes news in existence today with the some companies believing that a ribbon cutting for a new office water cooler might find some vacant space in a daily. Maybe it will. Don't count on it.

A few years ago, I rounded up the ratio between press releases and news stories on any given day. On any given day, there were 4.3 million press releases distributed to fill 1.4 million news stories, most of which never originated from a press release. The odds weren't great for a press release.

Nowadays, it can be even more challenging. Even when news stories do originate from a press release, the impact is considerably less than it was ten years ago. Most media outlets only have a diluted share of a shrinking readership/viewership, one that is plagued by content overload.

The media have a hard enough time soliciting interest in viable breaking news stories let alone trying to pitch something less ubiquitous like a ribbon cutting for an office water cooler. So why bother?

Why the press release is an underrated workhorse. 

From the perspective of the instructor, there isn't a better medium from which to teach students about public relations writing than a press release, even if I rarely call them that. I've always preferred the term 'news release' because it helps shape the content. News releases aren't about press plugs alone.

Determining News. Some practitioners think that pitches are enough. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they aren't. The difference is in the details. New releases challenge practitioners to determine the most viable news topics, find relevant data, and build a framework for something that can stand alone, be rewritten by the media, or spark a different approach to the story. Many pitches aren't news stories as much as they have the potential to be news stories. The legwork might not be complete.

Writing Stories. News releases don't necessarily feel like the most exciting assignments even if they require more strategic savvy and creative thinking to cut though the clutter. The structure, style, and format tend to be rigid without letting the writer off the hook of making the topic interesting. When you're only allotted about ten 2-3 sentence paragraphs, two of which are likely quotes, it requires considerable research, organization, accuracy, and clarity to get it right. Errors stand out easily.

Understanding Audiences. Public relations practitioners are mostly taught to think in terms of publics — various groups and stakeholders. But in order to write an effective news release they must not only consider whatever publics appear in their communication plan but also the audiences that subscribe to targeted magazines or media outlets and the journalists and editors (sometimes on a scale of one to one) who will ultimately decide whether a story that includes their organization will run.

Developing Relationships. News releases make for great introductions inside the organization while the practitioner researches subject matter experts and outside the organization while working with the media. Never mind the myth about public relations professionals who claim to have connections — any practitioner who takes press releases seriously can develop equally respectful media relationships overnight simply by providing what editors and journalists care about first — news.

The benefits, of course, don't begin and end with the practitioner. The organization benefits too.

Organizational Branding. Some marketing-minded practitioners might attempt to measure the outcome of every single release like an email blast, but the real value comes from the long-term game. The measure of your next ten or twenty or fifty news stories will tell the public (and your publics) about your organization than any single piece of content you produce. Ergo, what people hear about your company over the long haul will often determine what they say about you when it counts.

Content Testing. As mentioned earlier, news releases are an excellent medium to vet potential content. If it comes together in a release, internal content marketers and copywriters can extrapolate information to create content — blog posts that ring with a friendlier conversational tone or a visual exploration of the topic to share someplace like Instagram.

Professional Credibility. Even novice practitioners know that a third-party source, such as a member of the media, can elevate an organization's credibility. This is somewhat true today. But more than that, the press release itself (unless its news tone is abandoned for marketing fluff) has a broader reach than media. Whether published on a website or via wire services, analysts and other professionals pay attention to them too — especially in science, technology, and business.

The point is pretty simple — stop underestimating the news release and treating it like a throwaway plug that deserves about 15 minutes of an intern's time to toss together before firing out to a database of reporters who aren't the lease bit interested. Think of it instead like a content package written to get conversations started — inside and outside the organization. It's a framework for almost everything.

As such, if the news release can do it all when you do it right — achieve a short-term outcome, add to a long-term objective, brand and position, introduce and win over, spark conversation or create controversy, establish relationships inside and outside the company, raise questions and provide answers, establish credibility and record historical relevance, provide context and inspire content, feel official without being the final piece, and demonstrate a propensity (if not a passion) for solid communication — then why not love it? All it takes is a little bit of courage to expect better

Wednesday, January 28

What's All The Beef About The Naked Burger Ad?

With GoDaddy pulling its "Puppy Mill" ad, all eyes are now on Charlotte McKinney for Carl's Jr. to steal the top spot for most controversial Super Bowl advertisement this year. The advertisement, which will only run on the West Coast, features the top model bounding  through a farmer's market.

What makes the advertisement "controversial" is that McKinney appears to be naked in the majority of the spot, thanks to camera framing and prop placement. Feeding the fantasy is a series of gawking men who alternate between being distracted by the blonde beauty and fondling produce in front of her.

The commercial is supposed to sell a new hamburger for the quick service franchise, but mostly it sells McKinney. She usurps Paris Hilton and other socialites that Carl's Jr. has employed to sell food with sex. This time the caustic relationship is being all natural, alluding to nakedness and not altered.

Overall, the commercial does a great job at selling McKinney, but not such a great job at selling product. Most people struggle to remember the name of the new burger, a problem that isn't new for the fast food chain on the bottom of the big five burger businesses.


The problem isn't new. Most people don't remember what kind of burger Hilton or Heidi Klum ate either (and some can't remember the chain that supplied the sloppy eats). And even after doubling down on their decision to make premier hamburgers part of the product offering for Carl's Jr. and Hardees, the CKE business model has yet to eek out one percent of the quick burger market share.

To put that into perspective, its primary competition — Burger King, Wendy's, and Jack In The Box — have all captured 2 percent of the market. Meanwhile, McDonald's isn't even in the same category, owning 19 percent of the market share. The only reason it feels like the two compete for customers is that Carl's Jr. requires stores to spend about 5.8 percent of their sales on advertising to supplement regional advertising buys. In other words, the CKE sister chains tend to be more talk and less eat.

The Charlotte McKinney ad is less controversial and more boring. 

Let's be clear. McKinney is not boring. She does a fabulous job with a bad script and mediocre concept. Her presence in the spot is largely the freshest thing about it. The chain traded up in terms of spokespeople. It's a shame they didn't trade up their creative too.

The advertisement is a rehash of Benny Hill comedy with an Austin Powers twist. It pretends to be controversial, mostly because Carl's Jr. claims it is too hot for television, a boast that perpetuates some outdated masculine myth that women used to be sexually stymied but are now liberated, which is good news for men who love to objectify them.

Aside from that, it also perpetuates the myths that sex sells and attention is the end all of advertising. On the contrary, sex doesn't sell and publicity is cheap. Naked women aren't clever. They are a punt when every other play had failed and nobody in the room can come up with anything remotely clever.

This lack of creativity might even be contagious. Sex in advertising has been on a steady rise since the 1980s despite studies that show as many as 60 percent of consumers have a negative reaction to such advertising and women, specifically, are bored and disinterested in sex-infused advertising.

So where is the disconnect? Most people attribute it to the outmoded thinking of male executives who make the decisions and sophomoric creative types who lament that their best years were in college. I see it a bit differently, but only because I know hack creatives take most of their cues from television.

As television has become more titillating, they think advertising should follow suit. The only problem is that they never consider the context. Just because people tune into a sexually explicit show doesn't mean they want their advertisements to feature leering men and objectified women. The setup is done to death.

The push back that anyone who doesn't like it is a prude is banal.

All this isn't to say that sex ought to be excluded from advertising. There are plenty of treatments where it can work provided the creative doesn't eclipse the product. Consumers have a much more positive reason to like sex in advertisements when it's wholesome, sexily sensual, or smartly funny.

Those types of treatments tend to skip the stereotypes as they were defined in the 1980s. Nowadays, sexual liberation isn't defined by someone's tolerance for soft porn, but rather their maturity to see it as clean, consensual, and occasionally clever in its use of innuendo and humor. And unlike movies and television, copywriters and creative directors ought to remember that they have two jobs that fiction writers do not.

Modern advertising not only sells the product, but often holds up a mirror to its audience. So if the audience can't relate to the spot, don't expect them to respond to the product. They're much more likely to critique your ad instead, which is exactly what most people who have seen this ad have done. Hat tip to Geoff Livingston for the topic.

Wednesday, January 21

What To Do When Your Captive Audience Craves Escape

While prevailing marketing and public relations theories believe frequency and duration are among some of the best objectives in communication, car dealerships are learning the limits of a captive audience. According to AutoTrader Dealer Sourcing Studies, customer satisfaction is at its highest within the first 90 minutes on the day of a purchase and then steadily declines. 

Car dealerships that take longer than 2.5 hours to complete the transaction lose out on customer satisfaction. Dealerships saw customer satisfaction dip below average at the 2.5-hour mark. 

In fact, according to a Cox Automotive study, the amount of time it took to complete a purchase has taken the top spot in car buyer frustrations. It beat out negotiations, fair trades, salespeople, and even financing options. People, more than ever before, are equating customer satisfaction to time.

Time has become a priority in reducing customer friction. 

The sentiment isn't confined to car buying. It creeps into every consumer touch point. While email, for example, is still one of the most effective means of delivering content to people, nearly 60 percent of consumers won't read or open an email unless they are certain it contains relevant content.

Facebook has always been sensitive to this issue too. It developed its EdgeRank algorithm with relevancy in mind. How people react to the content you post determines how often and likely they will appear in your news feed. If people ignore or complain about the content, page managers begin to see a diminishing rate of return unless they pay to push their exposure.

That in itself makes for a standalone discussion, but the point for this post is clear: Customers don't want to waste their time. They want relevant on-demand and/or intuitive content, compressed purchasing cycles on everything they buy, and post-purchase communication with an emphasis on multichannel personalization over calendar sales and email spam.

Car buying provides an extreme example for marketers in every industry. 

As part of the cited white paper, Cox Automotive also conducted an in-depth analysis of four distinct dealerships to track actual cycle times across key processes and better understand the disconnect between customer expectations and the dealership experience. What they found is not only enlightening for car dealerships, but also every industry that cares about customer satisfaction.

• Sales Process. The average time it took to complete the vehicle sales process was nearly 53 minutes – more than half the desired ideal total customer cycle time of 90 minutes.

• Purchase Negotiation. It took an average of 21 minutes and a maximum of 41 minutes, making it potentially the most time-consuming variable in the vehicle sales process.

• Vehicle Appraisal Process. The average time it took to complete the appraisal process was 43 minutes, nearly half of the total desired customer cycle time of 90 minutes.

• Appraisal Negotiation. It took an average of 16 minutes and a maximum of 39 minutes, making it a significant time-consuming variable in the appraisal process.

• F&I Process. The average time it took to complete the F&I process was nearly 61 minutes – two-thirds of the desired length of the ideal total customer cycle time of 90 minutes.

• The F&I Paperwork. The process is often lengthened by requiring signatures on multiple paper forms, and filling out these forms took an average of 21 minutes and a maximum of 44 minutes, making it a significant time-consuming variable in the F&I process.

When you add up the amount of time that each process requires (including negotiations), it becomes clear that most car dealerships are unintentionally designed to deliver unsatisfactory experiences that don't meet customer expectations. But before you simply nod in agreement based on your own personal experience, ask yourself if your company is any better.

What steps have you made to ensure promotions are not only relevant, but also efficient in leading customers to a specific point of purchase? How easy is it to find a product, make comparisons, and complete a purchase? How easy is it to place an order on your website (or shopping app)? Has your company minimized any additional steps that elongate the purchasing process? How likely will customers have to re-enter, change, or update stored data for future purchases? Does your company have any appropriate/personalized post-purchase communication planned (without being intrusive)?

Ultimately, the car dealership study provides excellent insight into how time can influence customer satisfaction throughout the car buying process. And, along with that, it creates a framework to help other companies start asking questions about their marketing plans and purchasing cycles too.

The simple truth of it is that customers know their time is too valuable. And since they don't want to be held captive anymore, maybe it's time to invite them in and then let them go. They'll appreciate it.
 

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