Friday, July 31

Avoiding Business Traps: Harvard Business Publishing

The author of one cool site: blogging tips recently re-asked a question that many people have been asking: is mainstream media losing significance?

Under the current business model most traditional publications operate under, you bet. But it doesn't mean they'll go away. Publishers will eventually evolve and develop different business models. Long term, it is anyone's guess what these business models will look like, and chances are many of them will be different.

Some might evolve in networks like Michael Milken recently invested in. Milken is banking on the idea that Bizmore might be the better business model. The potential success of the site will likely hinge on how good the advice is. For example, one executive asked "How often should we change advertising campaigns?" And another executive answered "I'd recommend testing new/alternative campaigns continuously, via smaller campaigns in different magazines, geographies, outlets or via paid search online."

In that case, it's the wrong advice, prompted by the wrong question. And, unfortunately, this is the wrong post to cover it. Bum advice aside, the concept might be sound. It seems fewer executives are satisfied with the research culled by traditional publications these days; they need to know what it means and what to do with it.

Another emerging model (that some research firms have already adopted), which I offered up to Jay Ehret for his open letter to the Waco Tribune Herald, is to keep the summary information free and charge for the deeper research. The only burden that remains is proving content that has value.

To illustrate, I purchased an article on Harvard Business Review this morning. It's an older article (circa 1998), but meets the criteria: it's purchased content and provides some answers that newspaper people, who do not always operate as businessmen, might consider. (I skew my summaries for newspapers, but the traps apply to all business.)

The Hidden Traps In Decision Making

• Anchoring Traps. Business leaders have been struggling with this all the time. The most common problem is placing too much emphasis on past performance without considering other factors.

Newspapers certainly fell into this trap. As subscriptions shrank, they increased their direct mail programs and trial discount offers. It worked before, but now all it did was reduce the non-existent profit margin on subscriptions even more.

• The Status Quo Trap. The article points to newspapers as an example, as the majority of the “electronic newspapers” that first appeared on the Internet were modeled after their print precursors. They didn't need to be, but nobody really considered that they could be anything else.

Status quo suggested they be the same, as if people who looked for content online would be looking for the same content they found offline. Unfortunately, the status quo thinking trapped papers into offering virtually the same product for free.

• The Sunk-Cost Trap. The article uses the example of being given a stock or having a stock that we refuse to sell, even if it is for a loss, and thereby miss out on more attractive investments.

Fundamentally, this where many newspapers are now. They are desperately trying to "save" their old business model despite the fact that the business model no longer works.

• The Confirming-Evidence Trap. While the authors could have never guessed it at the time, the confirming evidence trap is trending up in popularity. In February, I called it validating opinion, but it's much the same.

Not only are publishers demonstrating an increasing propensity to validate reader opinions, but many are attempting to build future business models based on finding examples that may support their vision. Nowadays, it's easy to do.

• The Framing Trap. The framing trap refers to one of the most common mistakes made in business. People ask the wrong questions. In fact, it's the very reason the Q&A advice on Bizmore was flawed. It was the wrong question. It's also one I've answered before.

Some newspapers are asking the wrong questions too. They keep asking how many journalists do we need to let go because online advertising revenue is only a fraction of our print revenue? It's the wrong question. Instead, they might ask which assets have a demonstrated value that people might actually pay for or advertisers might want to be associated with.

• Estimating and Forecasting Traps. The article explains this trap as problematic because most of our minds are not calibrated for making estimates in the face of uncertainty. There seems to be some truth to that given the number of companies that inexplicably opted to try and wait out the economic downturn (as if).

The article breaks it down further into terms I learned from philosophy rather than business. People who get into accidents the most tend to be overly cautious or overly confident. For business, it's the same. The article goes a step further by suggesting even people in the middle are at risk if they always assume the past can accurately help us forecast the future. It cannot.

Of the above mentioned traps, I'm not sure if this one applies to newspapers as much as some of the new models that are being tested by people like Milken. Case in point: Milken's past success combined with the past success of similar Q&A networks that have seemed successful on Linkedin would convince some to conclude Bizmore will be successful. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Bizmore's success will be based on an entirely different equation that has little to do with Milken or similar formats.

Bizmore Q&A aside, they do seem to have some editorial content right for them. Shorter, punchier articles play well online, and today's daily download comes from Apple.

Currently, Bizmore's traffic appears to be about the same as a multi-author average blog, with significant distance to travel before catching up with Forbes or Businessweek. But, so far, it still represents a viable next step in how content providers might evolve.

Of course, there is one last point to touch on today. Of all the sources mentioned in this post, only Harvard Business Publishing generated revenue from me. They can from you too. You can purchase this classic article by Ralph L. Keeney, Howard Raiffa, and John S. Hammond right here. Have a nice weekend.

Thursday, July 30

Debating Social Media: Deloitte

Deloitte Consulting LLP has been entering the conversation about social media in some interesting ways for some time, including, most recently, adding a brand new moniker for its online activities. Christine Cutten, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP, places social media under the banner of collaborative marketing.

Cutten's and other content is available at Deloitte Debates under the banner of customer management (it's not under collaborative marketing as the release stated). It's presented in a point, counterpoint format and includes discussions from several members inside the Deloitte team. For purposes of this post, I'll stick with the release, which includes some of Deloitte's prevailing points and follow up with a few of our own.

• Proactively manage your collaboration strategy. Cutten suggests to be effective, you'll need dedicated resources responsible for managing your collaboration strategy, keeping up with the important trends, and making careful choices about where to engage. Sound advice.

Less sound is the suggestion to invest in building a presence wherever high-impact discussions are happening. The investment needs to be made where your customers are. The concept to consider customers first was reinforced to me the other day when I asked a colleague of mine why their organization chose MySpace over Facebook. The reason was simple enough. Despite national demographics and trends, their localized audience doesn't use Facebook; they use MySpace.

• Get serious about risk management. Cutten writes that there are some critical investments that companies cannot ignore. For employees, they suggest understandable policies, effective training, and continuous monitoring. Doing things on the fly without sufficient resources can do more harm than good. Sound advice.

The only caution in considering the above is in the definitions. Companies seem utterly confused about where monitoring employees might begin and where it might end. Companies and organizations need to be mindful in choosing internal or external spokespeople. Not everyone wants to use their social networks to market the company; and not everyone is well suited for it anyway.

• Be authentic -- but discreet -- in engagement. Establish clear engagement policies to drive consistency and mitigate your own risk. Always be honest about who you are, provide information that is helpful, and allowing insiders to share the occasional inside scoop can generate goodwill and credibility. Sound advice.

Companies needs to add a healthy dose of internal communication to the mix. In reviewing hundreds of companies with online engagement and in working with several dozen, successfully integrating employees into the communication plan seems to hinge not on external online communication but rather a corporate or organizational trust on the inside.

• Align internal processes. You can't provide fixes to problems if your marketing and engineering departments don't see eye to eye on what the problems are, or how to solve them. Sync up internal processes with virtual teams. Sound advice.

Whereas some people become concerned about controlling messages and corporate speak, we would consider the above point a clear example of message management. If you speak as a team or organization or company, it makes sense to ensure everyone is on the same page or the team will lose credibility over mixed messages.

• Build and evolve capabilities. Companies often mistake their current IT department as the answer for all things Internet: an approach that often comes up short. Roles such as Webmaster, forum monitor, bloggers, Web designers and widget developers may be necessary. Use third parties if you can't build them internally. Sound advice.

What is missing, however, are assets that companies already have on hand, internally or externally. Seasoned communicators with generalized and integrated skill sets that may include marketing, public relations, investor relations, etc. can often be the tie that binds communication functions together.

• Measure interactions. Someday, performance metrics will emerge that demonstrate the full value of collaboration marketing. But until then, it makes sense to start with basics such as site usage, page hits, and the overall tenor of the discussion. Hmmm...

Partly, but not exactly. Outcomes remain the best measure of all communication, not merely traffic or page hits. I was recently reminded of this once again when one of the blogs we administer saw visitation soar to 10,000 visitors. Did one of the posts suddenly resonate with the general public over the intended audience? No. A government worker committed suicide and someone with the same name was featured on the blog several years ago. Several bloggers had taken our interviewee's image and incorrectly assigned it to the deceased. We spent the better part of a day correcting the problem before our interviewee's family and friends heard the inaccurate news.

More to the point, however, is the simple fact that all communication can be measured. While the tenor of discussions can count, traffic and page hits are only an indication of reach. In many cases, like the mistaken identity story, it doesn't count. (Heck, host one chat session on Twitter and popular measures such as followers and re-tweets automatically inflate for no other reason.)

Overall, Deloitte's discussion is worth reading. While not all of the content and conversation demonstrates a deep understanding of the space, the fact that Deloitte considers social media, or what it calls "collaboration marketing," and has adopted it is good. The next step for many people is simply getting it right. And when it comes to social media, "right" is situational.

Wednesday, July 29

Defining Terms: Critical To Communication

I serve on the board of a nonprofit organization, and one of the conversations that continues to creep into meetings is one I've learned to stay away from. The conversation is whether or not the organization wants to retain its only public fundraising event.

On one hand, it is the organization's only public event. As such, it tends to be its most visible asset and among its most likely to be covered by the media. Those who would keep the event always point out that it is profitable, but that profit varies from year to year, depending on any number of factors that include the economic climate, auxiliary fundraising, and the location of the event. More than that, they say it has become an integral part of the organization's reputation.

On the other hand, it requires significant staff time and volunteer support. In some cases, those who would prefer to let it go generally dismiss the attendance and any profit as a measure of success. And in doing so, they generally do not consider auxiliary features that may impact the event such as whether the speaker is local or national, whether the organization hosted a silent auction, and whether media coverage has any bearing on the long-term success of the organization.

What's Missing Is A Definition

As simple as it sounds, what's missing is a definition. What constitutes a successful event? Profits? Attendance? Media coverage? Public relations (as the event benefits individuals, companies, and other nonprofits)? Without a definition, the outcome of the event (successful or not) is merely defined by each individual perspective. And that's never good.

Some people tell me (some of them students; some working professionals) that measurement in communication is optional. And yet, even beyond communication, it seems to be a critical component.

Benchmarking is important too. And so is considering any number of tactics.

Knowing these things or even asking about them can make a big difference in understanding whether it is a worthwhile asset or not. For example, we might ask what factors are contributing to or detracting from the success of the event. Do national speakers attract more attendees than local speakers? Does a silent auction add tangible value as a profit generator or, perhaps, an outreach in contacting businesses that have no other means to contribute? What about the value of the event to the community and whether or not that has any bearing on the decisions being made? What do any event sponsors think? What about visibility, branding, and reputation? Was the communication handled properly? Were all elements on time? And so on and so forth.

There are any number of questions to ask. But until they are asked and answered, no one really knows whether or not the event is successful or if it is a critical function of the organization. And unless we define success with some measure, we're not communicating as much as we're having an idle conversation about what seems to be. We might as well argue about the weather.

Unless Definitions Are Universal, Communication Becomes Idle

I don't mean universal in the global sense (unless we're talking about global issues); I merely mean universal in a stakeholder sense. For the organization, that might mean the board. For something else, that might mean a community or department. For a couple, it might mean two individuals (even though couples sometimes try to infuse outside opinion). And so on and so forth.

What makes definitions so critical?

For example, if we take something as simple as "I'd like to go to the park on the next nice day," we might have any number of varied responses on any given day on whether we ought to go to the park. Some people like it hot. Some people like it cool. Some people like moderate and partly cloudy. There are a lot of "nice days" out there, dependent solely on individual preference.

However, if we define the "nice day" with something more concrete such as "when I say a nice day, I mean about 78 degrees, moderate humidity, with a light breeze," then everyone knows when we might go to the park, even if they don't agree with the definition.

Why is that important? Because without the definition, we might find ourselves debating about whether or not to go to a park when we're actually disagreeing on the definition of a nice day. Or, we might debate whether to have an event, when we're really disagreeing about what makes an event successful. Or we might debate the varied opinions of ROI for communication, but only because we haven't even defined what ROI means, or an outcome, or whatever and whatnot.

We see the same problem with Congress right now. Congressional leaders are debating about universal health care. The hold up seems like it is about health care, but it's really because no one has offered a definition. While most people want "good, reliable, accessible health care for everyone," nobody has taken the time to define it beyond the sound bite. According to Peter Fleckenstein, here are some highlights of a working definition that differs from the sound bite.

It happens a lot in politics these days. People tend to vote on sound bites; we ought to be voting on definitions.

Developing Definitions Requires Empathy

Empathy is the capability to share and understand another's emotions and feelings. We might expand that concept to include definitions. If we can do that, then we increase the propensity to have meaningful dialogue because even if we don't agree on the definition, we can at least understand where the other person is coming from. As Steve Covey once said: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

Sure, there will be those times when we cannot accept or ever hope to understand a definition because it is, um, wacky. And in those cases, we might put our energy elsewhere. If we cannot accept a definition, then all the rest is idle chatter.

Make sense? Always start with a working definition. And if you don't think it's important, well, then have a nice day. And all the best.

Tuesday, July 28

Getting Closer: Disney Looks For Soft Spots

With more than $25 billion spent on advertising this year, most eyes are on New York as Walt Disney Company’s new research facility will unveil some early findings and suggest online ad formats to about 200 advertisers. The formats, according to The New York Times, represent layouts based on what our brains prefer, whether we click on the ads or not.

The emerging media and advertising research lab was launched in May 2008 under the direction of Prof. Duane Varan, an authority on the future of television and advertising. The lab was developed to better understand the emotional drivers of audience behavior and physiological reactions to advertising.

It will be interesting to learn how Disney data meshes with a report released by comScore last year. Its study, on behalf of Starcom and Tacoda, showed that average click rates on display ads in 2008 were less than 0.1 percent. Starcom research also suggested no correlation between display ad clicks and brand metrics, no connection between measured attitude towards a brand and the number of times an ad for that brand was clicked, and that optimizing for high click rates does not necessarily improve campaign performance.

These are some of the same reasons we've avoided some "click" measurement assignments, whereas compensation is based on clicks. All too often, consumers develop a composite of impressions over time and seek out paths to demand fulfillment that they are most comfortable with. For example, after months of being exposed to movie messages, many customers traveled to local retailers over online outlets or visited online outlets from a path different than a source link.

In The New York Times story, much of the Disney research seems to hinge on google-based eye tracking, stereoscopic camera-based eye tracking and heart rate monitoring. While the lab promises to deliver deeper findings in these areas, it would be even more interesting if the lab eventually compares such models to contextual events.

For instance, we already know that the Coca-Cola brand is strong enough to cause people to prefer it over other sodas, even when its label is placed on competing products. Thus, we'd have to conclude brand reputation may have a dramatic impact on how small of an ad or simplified of a message some brands might get away with over other brands.

Communication doesn't happen in a box. And the brain works in some very mysterious ways.

Sure, we can ask questions (as The New York Times does) whether preroll ads that play before video clips are more effective when paired with banner ads. But will we ever know if the outcomes are different depending on the brand? It's hard to say. Neuro persuasion is still one of the least understood areas in the communication field.

What we do know, however, is that the effectiveness of advertising, marketing, and communication is tied to thousands of variables, including the individual experiences of each person exposed to an advertisement. The science beyond the creative or connection (in the case of social media) is attempting to effectively touch more of a mass audience on a scale of one-to-one as possible.

For example, when customers of a resort began writing personal letters to the owner of the property in response to his direct mail letters, we knew the communication mix was right. At that point, where the coupons landed on the page seemed trivial. Whereas, prior to having the right mix, coupon placement seemed to matter a great deal. Weird, but that's how we're wired.

Monday, July 27

Translating Research: Mommy Bloggers

The results of a new national survey commissioned by Hallmark Cards, Inc. attempts to pin down one of the more increasingly elusive but always important audiences for some companies — moms. And, according to the new survey, the company discovered that moms need more encouragement from other moms to meet the day-to-day challenges of motherhood.

What Moms Are Telling Hallmark Cards, Inc.

• 84 percent of moms said they believe that sharing funny stories about their child or children with other moms helps them manage the day-to-day challenges and stress of motherhood.
• 68 percent said they share funny stories about their experiences with others as a way to handle the day-to-day challenges of motherhood.
• 75 percent said they are looking for new ways to boost their child's confidence for going back to school.

What Hallmark Cards, Inc. Offers Moms.

Hallmark Cards, Inc. translated these findings into a new greeting card product line, one they say helps moms encourage moms and moms encourage kids. While the commercials connect and the concept is sound, the cards seem one step disconnected.

Translating Research Makes A Difference.

I can't help but wonder if moms are saying they want to connect with more moms. In other words, maybe the research suggests that they want a community, which makes those cards seem like a secondary or ancillary solution.

In other words, if moms are saying they want to connect and share, meeting that need might be the priority over a product that may appeal to them once they've connected. Translating the research this way leads to several different paths to entry that range from developing a network to supporting those networks that already exist. Reading Susan Getgood's post might be a good place to start too. She lists several mommy networks that seem within reach.

Of course, any program developed out of the initial research ought not be exclusive to mommy bloggers, which is where Hallmark Cards, Inc. attempted to apply it last April. Back then, the company hosted 12 mommy bloggers at Hallmark headquarters to learn and share, among other things, ideas about the need for mom-to-mom encouragement.

The takeaway here is two-fold. How you translate data makes a difference. In this case, sometimes the path to creating new products includes developing or supporting a network where that product becomes useful. The difference is in the objective: demand creation vs. demand fulfillment.

Over the long term, I suspect Hallmark Cards, Inc. will get it right. The company has a history of listening to consumers and then translating any insights into new products and services. Now, it only needs to learn that some research doesn't translate into new products as much as it translates into the environments where such products might fit.

Friday, July 24

Pulling Employees: Five Es For Internal Audiences

As much as people talk about pull communication for customers, there is another audience that needs it. Employees.

Even when I speak to public relations students, I always include at least one class that reinforces just how much impact external communication has on internal audiences. My concluding point is always the same — the best communication happens from the inside out. Today, this concept is especially true as the barriers between the two are largely non-existent.

Five Es For Better Employee Communication.

• Engagement. Ongoing and open two-way communication that travels from the bottom up as much as the top down. Employees who feel connected to top management tend to outperform companies who feel disconnected, especially in an environment where more CEOs seem accessible to customers. At minimum, employees deserve to know first.

• Education. Ongoing education, training, and information that goes beyond company updates or departmental functions often provides a context greater than the confines of a single job description. One of the best internal communication pieces I had ever read for a utility was a five-part series on the history of natural gas. The employees thought so too.

• Empowerment. Setting goals and actions for employees is always important, but communicating that employees can make recommendations helps establish their ownership of a particular job function. The concept is what put Dana Corporation on the modeling map years ago.

• Encouragement. While leading by example is critical, demonstrating that an employer is capable of performing specific duties (if not already engaged in them) can invigorate teams. I saw an example firsthand when the general manager of one of the premier hotel brands in the world paused to "fluff" a chair cushion.

• Exemplification. Recognition for individuals, teams, or specific actions that go beyond the privacy of personnel reviews set precedence and help create corporate culture. One of the most successful campaign launches for a new health care program we developed for one company included visible incentives for those who enrolled early.

When you really stop to think about it, the same companies that have successfully developed social media programs are the same companies with internal communication programs that range from better than average to the best in the world. In fact, when looking back on the top ten list shared from EngagementDB last Monday, I'm a bit remiss that there was not more emphasis on the work behind the work that helped make these companies successful online. That work is internal communication.

Thursday, July 23

Picking Channels: Amazon And Zappos

Not everyone understands why Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos chose YouTube and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh chose a blog post to break yesterday's $807 million* acquisition while reportedly ignoring mainstream media on the front end, but I think I do. Hsieh all but says it in his post.

"Over the next few days, you will probably read headlines that say 'Amazon acquires Zappos' or 'Zappos sells to Amazon'. While those headlines are technically correct, they don't really properly convey the spirit of the transaction," Hsieh wrote.

Less obvious in the statement but demonstrative in example, the Bezos video is even more telling. Take a look.

Still unsure? Both Bezos and Hsieh have a story to tell. And neither of these stories would overshadow whatever the mainstream media might happen to ink about the deal. In effect, intentional or not, Amazon and Zappos may have demonstrated why social media sometimes means more message control, not less. Or did they?

Social Media Meets Message Control?

Sure, there absolutely were news releases sent out and none of them include the more colorful quips about home-based power grids and purchase ding dongs as seen on the Amazon video. They do, however, carry quotes aligned with the direct communication via the Zappos blog and Amazon's YouTube video.

Ironically, while both the reflective and visionary are apparently confined to singular sound bites, the details of the purchase price are all over the map. Amazon released $807 million. Most reported $847 million. And TechCrunch estimates $920 million. Some of the numbers can be easily attributed to stock fluctuations. Some cannot.

Much more interesting than the numbers is the simple idea the mainstream media was initially left out. In doing so, the companies seemingly have more control over the message as most mainstream media seems content to run with what was provided.

ZD Net seems a little less impressed, taking the time to answer its own questions since nobody else is willing to. Fast Company has written all sorts of amusing things about the communication, which means they may be less than amused. Meet The Boss even sent out a news release that it had some sort of exclusive interview with one of the elusive CEOs. The story, however, doesn't really seem to measure up to what it was reported to be.

Even The Wall Street Journal has a mash up of what everyone else seems to be saying. All the while, no one seems to have direct contact with the sources.

Social Media Tends To Be Messy.

Do people really think the initial story, broken on public channels, was designed as an externally transparent internal communication to the employees of both companies? Weird.

It seems more likely this was a public communication designed for anyone who was interested in hearing it (with Bezos and Hsieh being the most interested) while establishing what Amazon and Zappos want the message to be. Is that a good thing?

I haven't decided. I like both companies well enough. We have good enough relations with Amazon, and its nice to know Zappos will still keep its home in Las Vegas (for now, anyway). I also have to admit that both the notion of internal communication shared with the public first or the idea that corporate posturing without probing questions from the media gives me goosebumps.

After all, this bit of communication clearly demonstrates that social media, for all its praise of being open, two-way communication, could take a turn to being completely closed if the public allows it. Given that the public doesn't really care about the deal (not until it affects purchases) and those who did mostly offered a quick "congrats" and moved on, it seems like the public absolutely will.

Wednesday, July 22

Choosing Spokespeople: Social Media

Two posts, one by Doug Meacham, multi-channel retail consultant with IBM, and another by Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs, struck a chord with me this morning. It seems to be a reoccurring conversation offline: communication folks, marketing professionals, public relations pros, and executives keep asking how they might keep their personal lives personal as their companies enter social media.

The short answer: you can't.

Once you are a semi-public or public figure, there is little chance of going back. As Brogan points out, it's a commitment. Part of the unwritten contract is that as a representative of a brand, you are always on and more people will want to connect with you.

It's also one of the reasons I took exception to the company attempting to sequester all of its employees into a social media marketing effort. Aggressive, disrespectful nature aside, not everyone is suited to be a spokesperson. And even those who are don't appreciate the consequences of being such.

While being semi-public or public might be part of the expectations for anyone in public relations or communications or leadership or any other job skirting the confines of celebrity, it's just not so for the greater portion of the population. Even among teens, who freely share personal information, they still maintain some semblance of privacy because their accounts have yet to be dialed in as a de facto company spokesperson. Their openness is often relative to association.

Choosing an online company spokesperson.

Choosing spokespeople or online representatives for a company is not all that dissimilar from choosing who might appear on the evening news, assuming they understand up front that the camera is on all the time. Here are a few quick tips:

• They have some authority with the company (even if outsourced)
• They are presentable, with better-than-average writing skills
• They are knowledgeable about the company and industry (or learn it)
• They are compassionate and make emotional connections
• They can write tight, without too much industry jargon
• They are familiar with the tools, communities, and customers
• They can establish positive experiences and remain steadfast
• They need to have a sense of what boundaries to set for some privacy

They do not always have to have the title of CEO nor do they have to be a recent college grad granted the title of social media director as opposed to public relations assistant. (I'm often amazed how many companies assign social media titles to new hires that the same company wouldn't trust on a television interview, but that is not to say some won't surprise you.) Above all, they need to understand communication from a strategic perspective while being able to execute that communication as a community developer who is willing to be semi-public if not freely public (even if they operate a team account).

Amber Naslund has been contributing a few posts on the subject of community. I would encourage anyone to read them. But there is something else I might add.

Two-way communication doesn't stop between a representative (in-house or outsourced). The information they glean from the community or customers can help shape other communication efforts and sometimes the products or services themselves.

Monday, July 20

Making Myths: Public Relations On Social Media

There are a couple of public relations firms in my market that have mistakenly adopted the notion that social media is free, much like a shrimp cocktail, hot dog, or breakfast buffet used to be in Vegas. As the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. And in this case, the only thing their clients get is indigestion.

Case in point, I was recently forwarded an internal e-mail sent to all the employees (and ex employees) of one company, which was recently advised to adopt social media because it's free. The pitch presented the myth: social media is free because you can require your employees to market for you. In fact, they concluded, the more employees, the better the reach.

How Do Executives Interpret A Free Lunch?

The executive not only bit, he sent an e-mail that smacks of astroturf in the making and might be illegal (which is why we omitted the offending company's name). And instead of a free lunch, all he received was an internal crisis communication situation of epic proportions. How do I know? If it wasn't epic, someone would have never forwarded this to me...

This is not a request.

If you are receiving this email, you are part of the acme company and we all need to participate in these marketing efforts.

By the end of the week, we will audit the sites and if you have a facebook page and did not sign up, you will be written up.

Participation in making our company better is never an option.


There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

While it would certainly be easier to illustrate what is right about this e-mail (um, nothing), there are dozens of reasons to reconsider the free lunch concept. Here are the top ten reasons why marketing executives cannot eat for free, especially when they are really asking employees to pay for it on the backs of their friends and family...

• Requiring employees to turn personal accounts into mini-marketing vehicles is wrong.
• Asking employees to work overtime without compensation is wrong and could violate federal labor laws.
• Not every employee is suitable as a customer service spokesperson, especially if they're sequestered.
• Most employees are already overburdened with work and don't need online marketing distractions.
• Some employees share painfully vivid personal information about themselves online, better left unshared.
• Most social network accounts are personal; asking people to blast family and friends is futile.
• When employees leave, and one day they will, they will take those customer connections with them.
• Launching a social media program without a strategic communication plan increases company risk.
• Customers feel overwhelmed visiting Facebook pages or groups with a 10:1 employee-to-visitor ratio.
• Participation in making a company better is ALWAYS an option; it has to be earned by an employer.

Whereas no one can blame the executive for hoping employees might give the business a boost, the launch and entire program is fundamentally flawed. And, after the e-mail, even those employees who might have been inclined to promote the company were turned off by the apparent lack of mutual respect.

From what I've seen, a second marketing person tried to save the day with cheerleader follow ups, but the real kicker was the second e-mail from the marketing executive. It wasn't an apology nor did it exhibit any sense of empathy. His next e-mail retracted the threat, conveyed desperation (but we'd still like you to be our friend), and concluded that "open communication between all levels of our team is important in maintaining long-term success and a happy work environment."

As for those employees without Facebook accounts? They are not required at this time. (Seriously.)

Bad Communication Is A Sign Of Bigger Problems.

So how did this all start? Simple enough. The company is in trouble. And as a solution, its public relations firm offered up the notion of social media as a free lunch. While we don't know if they suggested it as an added value service (free) or for an additional monthly consulting fee, we do know the why behind the lie. If all the employees had signed on to spike the social media reach of this company, the public relations firm could have added the outcomes to its column inch counts. Sick.

Sure, digital communication is moving forward. Social media presents some compelling case studies. It can augment other communication efforts for a fraction of the cost.

However, not all public relations firms can make it work. Most lack the skill sets. How can you tell? If they open with the notion that social media is free, run away. If they fit somewhere on the carpetbagger list, find a new firm. And if they boast about taking seminars for six months to become experts, they are the furthest from it.

As the above e-mail illustrates, a little bit of knowledge about a subject doesn't make someone an expert. It makes them dangerous.

Engaging Customers: Top Brands Online

Wetpaint and the Altimeter Group released a study today that confirms what seasoned communicators with several years of experience already know. Deep engagement with consumers through social media channels correlates to better financial performance. How much?

Companies engaged in social media grew company revenues by 18 percent over the last 12 months. The least engaged saw revenues sink 6 percent over the same time period.

"The closer any company is to its customers, the better, and it's hard to argue with the ability for social media to create such proximity," said Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint. "In this day and age, companies should feel much more comfortable investing in social media -- the correlation to results is so clear."

The study also concludes that companies which only establish an online presence — present in a few social media channels (Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that push messages and seldom engage customers or those spread too thin across dozens of channels — tend to see lackluster returns on investment.

Who are the top ten brands engaged in social media?

1. Starbucks
2. Dell
3. eBay
4. Google
5. Microsoft
6. Thomson Reuters
7. Nike
8. Amazon
9. SAP
10. Yahoo!/Intel (tie)

You can find the entire study via an interactive Web site. Starbucks, which has one of the most prominent engagement strategies demonstrates it understands all strategies require central coordination, each social media channel requires different engagement, and leading company participants understand and can mitigate risk.

Companies often implement technologies without a clear view of how they fit into and support corporate goals. They thus end up with a bunch of point solutions, but no strategy — and worse, no results, with increased internal and external risk.

What does the study mean for smaller businesses?

Companies, regardless of size, need to move beyond tactical considerations and realign their communication plans to fit strategic goals with measurable results. All of their communication decisions need to be grounded in research before companies launch any number of social networking accounts, blogs, and other online technologies.

As mentioned last week, we recently conducted a market intelligence study on a niche industry that should be outperforming despite any economic constraints. However, as this niche tended to rely exclusively on traditional marketing and tactical communication, we were not surprised to find that 15 percent of these businesses had closed in the last six months.

Ergo, even small business needs to reevaluate its communication plans from the bottom up, with those including social media being the most likely to succeed. However, keep in mind, simply entering into social media — creating a fan page or Twitter account — is hardly enough and may even be detrimental. How detrimental? Come back tomorrow.

Friday, July 17

Changing A Down Economy: It's Psychology

At least once a week in this market, someone tells me their company is holding off on advertising, marketing, or social media until the government can fix the economy and the market improves. And every week, I give them the same advice to think about.

The economy is not your company's problem, it is your company's psychology that is a problem.

As part of what our company does every day, we research specific industries in order to find strengths and weaknesses within specific niches. We do this for many reasons, ranging from our own market intelligence purposes to specific research, forecasting, and communication recommendations for an assortment of clients in this market and elsewhere.

One cursory research study we recently completed tells the story aptly enough. According to research, this particular niche outperforms in a down economy. And, sure enough, in most markets across the country, this particular niche does excel. Except in this market. In this market, 15 percent of businesses operating in that niche have closed. Why?

Localized, national, and global markets behave differently, but with similar psychologies.

Jeanne M. Liedtka, faculty member at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, knows. Writing for The Washington Post's leadership blog, she suggests that many businesses have adopted the same strategy as Goldman Sachs — "hunker down, cut costs, batten down the hatches, play it safe, and wait for the economy to turn around."

Her advice? Change your psychology, followed with four solid tips for businesses on any playing field (paraphrased below).

• Conduct some research to help you understand your company and its place within the market.
• Do something, even if it is small, to demonstrate the value of an idea that can propel the company forward.
• If your company has to lay people off, resist any temptation to cut across the board and focus on keeping performers.
• Learn to embrace uncertainty rather than allowing it to immobilize your company with fear.

The economy is not your company's problem, it is your company's psychology that is a problem.

There was some cautionary advice left in the comments of Liedtka's post too. Several stood out, but one worth mentioning came from Giancarlo Newsome, who works with Clockwork Solutions.

"The advice is reasonably sound but there are some significant mines in this field of approach that have been laid that must be exposed... the HOW is critical," wrote Newsome. Hmmm ... how indeed.

While it's always prudent to ensure that internal ideas have not descended into what Kurt Vonnegut once described as badges of friendship or enmity — Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity — the how is useful as long as it doesn't immobilize the do.

Sometimes the how needs to come from the first bullet rather than an internal vote on the individual popularity of various people and badges of friendship or enmity (or worse: entitlement, rank, and position) within the organization. If it doesn't, then the organization stands to go the way of Goldman Sachs' thinking.

For that one niche that ought to be over performing in this economy (mentioned earlier), 15 percent have already proven the outcome of that thinking. As the old saying goes, one definition of insanity is someone who does the same thing over and over, and expects a different outcome. It's time to change your organizational psychology. Or has it changed already?

Thursday, July 16

Impacting Everyone: FTC Aims To Regulate

According to Dow Jones Newswires, Lifestyle Lift released a statement yesterday that any complaints were related to the period before the current management team took over and that Lifestyle Lift “regrets that earlier third-party Web site content did not always properly reflect and acknowledge patient comments or indicate that the content was provided by Lifestyle Lift.”

The statement was attributed Gordon Quick, president. We can then only assume that Quick, who became president in February 2008 after working as a executive consultant and mentor, isn't aware of dozens of Web sites created on behalf of the company, including Dr. David M. Kent's Lifestyle Lift Fact, which attributes the cause of complaints to patients with unrealistic expectations and astroturfing by competitors.

"The Internet is filled with misperceptions perpetuated by companies that call themselves 'real this' or 'real that', diaries and '' of all sorts," it reads. "Lifestyle Lift is not the only firm being targeted by these unscrupulous websites that profit from sensationalism and hype."

"In the past at Lifestyle Lift, we have had a small number of patients who elected a procedure for the wrong reasons. These patients, although they have no medical problems, tarnish the image of Lifestyle Lift and our Doctors on the Internet," another section reads. "These unhappy patients will often complain of long recovery times, no change in their appearance,'scar for no reason', pain, missed work, unhappiness, scarring, 'no one cares', 'no one noticed me' etc."

The publication date is 2008. Most other sites that look as if they are patient generated (except for disclaimers) were also published in or after 2008.

How It Affects People Beyond Cosmetic Surgery

Lifestyle Lift isn't indicative of all cosmetic surgery or all social media. However, it's fair to assume their online approach sets the tone of the Federal Trade Commission, which has proposed new rules that could take affect this summer.

Most of the changes are harmless. Bloggers would be asked to disclose any relationship they have with a sponsor, any compensation received for a specific post, and whether the product they received was free. All of these changes follow standard ethical guidelines observed by most social media participants.

The one change that might not be harmless, as described by, is bloggers would be held liable for making false or unsubstantiated claims about products. Companies paying bloggers could be held liable too.

The policies would not be exclusive to cosmetic surgery or anonymous posts by executives, but everyone who endorses businesses and plays video games. Unfortunately, regulation of the Internet is problematic, potentially infringing on free speech and censoring honest opinions (good and bad).

Fortunately, the Federal Trade Commission is still seeking public comment. You can find those guidelines here.

Several Stories Related Astroturf And The FTC

"FTC Launches First Wave Of Smackdown On Scammy Loan Consultants" by Chris Walters, The Consumerist

"The Plaintiffs’ Bar’s Covert Effort To Expand State Attorney General Federal Enforcement Power" by Victor E. Schwartz and Christopher E. Appel, Washington Legal Foundation

"TripAdvisor Warns Of Hotels Posting Fake Reviews" by Melissa Trujillo, The Associated Press

Wednesday, July 15

Paying Fines: Lifestyle Lift

According to The New York Times, Lifestyle Lift, a national cosmetic surgery company with 80 doctors working in offices spread across the U.S., settled with the State of New York over its attempts to fake positive consumer reviews on the Web. The company will pay $300,000 in penalties and costs to the state.

An "attempt to generate business by duping consumers was cynical, manipulative and illegal,” Andrew M. Cuomo, New York’s attorney general told The New York Times.

The $300,000 in penalties and fines will likely be the least of the company's damages. If the Mich.-based company felt negative reviews hurt its reputation as reported, the damage caused by fake reviews will become a blemish that will be hard to overcome.

Adding insult to self-inflicted injury, the attorney general’s office shared one e-mail that instructed employees to "devote the day to doing more postings on the Web as a satisfied client.” Thomas Seery, founder of, where Lifestyle Lift has more than 18o negative reviews, called it right when he said "It’s an incredible violation of consumer trust and it’s a pernicious element of the Web that some companies have embraced this idea, under the guise of reputation management.”

Make no mistake, writing a fake review is not reputation management, especially from a company that carries a "Truth In Medicine" paragraph on its Website. It also pledged that "all Internet communications accompanied by the trademarked Lifestyle Lift logo are fair and accurately represent the latest in medical information about facial firming procedures."

Faking The Net Is No Way To Manage Communication

When a company is bombarded with hundreds of negative reviews, the temptation to fake reviews might be overwhelming.

It's especially true when some reviews include comments such as "I am getting depressed and worry about looking like a freak forever," "My scars are not so bad, but my sister's scars seem to move away from the ear line to the center of her cheek as time goes by," and "My mother has horrible scars from this & her ears are numb. She also has severe pain, constant pain." All of them include procedural costs that ranged from $1,500 to $8,000.

And while the Website claims "satisfying clients has led to unparalleled growth," a simple Google search seems to reveal a different explanation all together. Websites and/or affiliate program sites here, here, here, and here seem to be the sad secret to the its success. Assuming what seems like dozens of sites will eventually be removed, you can read more reviews uncovered by the Consumer Alert Report here.

The fallout doesn't seem to be limited to the practice. The Post-Standard included a local angle that alleges "Dr. Douglas W. Halliday, an ear nose and throat doctor with an office at 4939 Brittonfield Parkway, is listed on Lifestyle Lift's Web site as one of its physicians. Earlier this year, the state fined Halliday $20,000 after he was accused of injecting patients with an unapproved drug he told them was Botox."

When you add up all the damage done to this company in the months ahead, the original reviews and $300,000 fine will be miniscule when compared to the local journalist and consumer investigations of its doctors, more women with problems come forward to share their stories, other AG offices consider launching their own investigations, and a mostly unforgiving online public weighs in on what it thinks of astroturf.

Considering Lifestyle Lift doesn't seem to have any semblance of a crisis communication plan in place, we suspect it's a company in trouble. Its story, as once seen on Montel, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and even in an endorsement from David Griffin who appeared as a contestant on The Biggest Loser, will be replaced with another meaning all together.

Survivable? Perhaps a few months ago. Today? It will take a living case study to know.

Tuesday, July 14

Blowing Air: Why Push Falls Short

In 1982, I had a friend whose uncle sold Electrolux vacuums at a time when they didn't retail for $299 or less. He described it as an easy job, despite the skill sets being part of a dying art.

Nonetheless, every day, he would hit the streets, knocking on door after door in order to provide a demonstration. During a demonstration, the vacuums would practically sell themselves as he walked them through their various tricks: sucking up ball bearings; pulling dirt out of the carpet after the homeowners' vacuum had cleaned the area; and vacuuming a bed to illustrate just how much dirt, microscopic mites, and other mysterious creatures people go to sleep with every night.

The latter example, if the vacuum hadn't sold by then, almost always sealed the deal. After all, who wouldn't feel guilty for making their family sleep on an assortment of alien life forms? It worked so well, he often cut off work after the third sale, which was usually around noon. The company didn't care. Accountability was tied to sales and not time cards.

Why Door-To-Door Push Marketing Died

While he never really knew it, my friend's uncle was employing a combination of demand creation, classic marketing, and a direct call to action. And, it was relatively easy because once he engaged in a conversation and moved it toward a presentation, the only voice that could be heard over the buzz of the machine and swirling dirt was his own: push marketing at the core.

It also relied on a business model that seldom works anymore. It relied on a captive audience and solo sales pitch. Nowadays, that almost never happens. Nowadays, the problem presented by my friend's uncle would more likely prompt homeowners to dash upstairs to the computer and pull down as much information as possible on dust mites, vacuum cleaners, price points, and ball bearings (for good measure).

The end result would not be the same. My friend's uncle would very likely succeed in selling more competitive models than the Electrolux models even it was for no other reason than people feeling empowered into making their own decision. In sum, push marketing stands a near equal chance at pushing people away. At yet, so many companies persist in this endeavor.

What Is Holding Organizations To This Old Model?

Or, as one of Valeria Maltoni's readers recently asked, what is holding organizations back from doing it right? Why don't more organizations shift their marketing strategy in line with social media and pull marketing? Why is everyone ignoring the obvious?

Why? While there are many reasons, the most obvious seems to be the rapid adoption of social media by people who know very little about the composite of communication skills required to develop a successful program.

The two most common culprits, it seems, are internal marketing people who have limited experience in anything but push marketing, and an increasing number of public relations firms that are still trying to hold onto the diminishing return of media relations (less newspaper pages inevitably means less column inches to count).

Unfortunately, both look at social media as a demand fulfillment tool, despite that model being easily likened to pointing an Electrolux toward the ceiling and declaring that sucking air is a return. It isn't. In fact, there is a very good chance such efforts do little more than move dust around.

On the contrary, social media might be a communication tool but the implementation and execution requires something better than sucking air. Not everyone can do it. If they could, then every Facebook page, Twitter account, and company blog would be a success.

So is it any wonder so many organizations are being held back? Not really. I imagine it to be rather difficult for executives to get excited about social media when the only return they hear is the sound of sucking air. Give them a little more time. Sooner or later they will realize that the problem isn't in the tool as much as the operator.

The first step is usually the hardest to take. It's the one that requires them to realize that it's not about them, their product, or their company anymore. Or, like the one mentioned in regard to vacuums, it's less about vacuums and more about clean.

Monday, July 13

Speaking SyFy: The Bobblehead Equation

Last week, the Sci Fi Channel became SyFy in what is being called by some "the most ill-advised branding move since New Coke." (It's actually much worse than New Coke because there won't be a black market for the old product.)

The name change was originally floated to disbelieving Sci Fi fans as early as March. But even so, four months must not have been enough time for the future SyFy marketing and public relations team to get on the same page. It must not have been enough time because the excuses behind the rebranding effort are all over the place, enough so that SyFy deserves a Letterman-styled top ten list...

The Top Ten Stupid Excuses "Uttered" For Renaming The Sci Fi Channel

10. Although we love the name Sci Fi, because it's a generic term, we can never own it.

9. It positions the brand for future growth by creating an ownable trademark.

8. Syfy ushers in a new era of unlimited imagination and new dimensions.

7. It will pave the way for us to truly become a global lifestyle brand.

6. Syfy allows us to build on our 16-year heritage of success with a new brand built on the power that fuels our genre.

5. Michael Engleman asked "what if we could change the name without ever changing the name?"

4. It's much more hip and fits better with the new slogan "Imagine Greater."

3. SyFy is how our 18-to-34 techno-savvy crowd texts the name.

2. We want to appeal to more women and young people.

1. The name Sci Fi was associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements.

So What Is The Real Reason Sci Fi Channel Had To Become SyFy?

The bobblehead equation.

That's right. The only legitimate reason for a successful 16-year-old brand to become something else is an entire room full of bobbleheads.

It starts innocently enough. Someone had nothing better to do. Or maybe they do, but don't want to do it. Or maybe they do, but want to feel like they own something. So they start pointing out problems: the name is too long, the name is limiting, the name doesn't appeal to enough people, especially women.

And then, maybe because people are afraid to lose their jobs in a recession, the entire room of creative guys and corporate shirts start bobbing their little heads up and down, down and up, up and down. Done. The Sci Fi Channel becomes SyFy.

Seriously. I've seen it happen in person several times over the last 20 years. And, I expect I will with even more frequency, in the next 20 years. It happens all the time and the consequences are usually much, much worse than the damage done by some committee on a nonprofit organization.

In this case, even the myth that Michael Engleman asked the question (contradicting other stories shared by the press) and inked out the new name five minutes later is baloney. Some of us already know where SyFy originated, and for a much better reason.

But no matter. Despite all the speculation, most people know the truth now. The only reason we have to endure the name SyFy is because of bobbleheads, with David Howe, according to some, being the biggest bobbler of all after he said no one would remember this in a few years' time. Um, okay. You just keep bobbling, David, and everything will be fine.

The Case For Message Management During Change.

The whole SyFy snafu actually makes an excellent case for message management. Although it often gets a bad rap, being likened to corporate speak and political spin, sometimes it's a good thing.

You see, sometimes message management simply ensures that twenty-some spokespeople don't go around the press circuit with a different excuse. When they do, it makes it look less like you had a bobblehead moment and much more like you're lying because there is no good reason at all.

Friday, July 10

Breaking Guitars: United Airlines

United Airlines might have already contacted singer/songwriter Dave Carroll to "make things right" after it carelessly broke his Taylor acoustic guitar, but given the extent Carroll and the Sons of Maxwell had to go to find justice is virtually unforgivable. Four days ago, Carroll had introduced a music video about the band's experience. In four days, the video has captured 1.5 million views (one million since yesterday) and shows no signs of slowing down.

Dave Carroll: United Breaks Guitars

Propelled by coverage by the Consumerist, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, ABC News, CBS News, and others; Carroll may eventually have the first customer complaint to go gold and the 13,000 plus passengers who file claims against United Airlines may have a permanent rally cry against broken customer policy.

Inept Customer Service Followed By Bad Public Relations Pun

After the first known acknowledgment from United Airlines' Twitter account, the airline issued a statement that reinforced the pun — "This has struck a chord w/ us and we've contacted him directly to make it right." Here is the extended statement:

This has struck has a chord with us. We are in conversations with one another to make what happened right, and while we mutually agree that this should have been fixed much sooner, Dave Carroll’s excellent video provides United with a unique learning opportunity that we would like to use for training purposes to ensure all customers receive better service from us.

Since, the tone of the tweets have changed from pithy to tempered, with United Airlines offering apologies and promising to use the video for training purposes. Ironically, the consumer crisis is indirectly helping the airline earn more followers on Twitter. We suspect they might not know that 50,000 followers is an empty goal if half sign on to keep the Carroll story alive until changes are implemented. Much like we suspect they didn't realize their statement would fuel more Carroll coverage.

At the same time, United Airlines is also being fined $80,000 by the federal government for not telling consumers which other airlines it has code-share agreements with. United is part of the Star Alliance, which partners international carriers. Other members include US Airways Group Inc., Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Air Canada. Incidentally, US Airways is not known for customer service either.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned regarding customer service and communication inside this humorous take on airline travel, but the one that resonates the most is that companies might get used to the idea that they have two opportunities to listen to unhappy customers — either on the phone when they first call or online with the whole world watching as judge, jury, and, sometimes, executioner.

To its credit, at least United Airlines has some semblance of a fledgling social media program to answer some consumer questions direct. While a quick review reveals it's less than perfect by any measure, many companies facing a similar customer-driven crisis communication challenge would have to rely exclusively on the media to tell their side of the story. Sometimes that's what it takes for organizations to finally understand you don't have to engage in social media to be engaged by social media.

This story bumped our third installation of the SyFy branding debacle, now slated for Monday. Have a nice weekend!

Thursday, July 9

Rebranding SyFy: What's In A Name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." — Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Depending on the interview, Howe seems to have a different answer as to why the 16-year-old Sci Fi Channel has become SyFy.

"We want to appeal to more women and young people," Howe told The Washington Post in contrast to the myriad of answers delivered to viewers, fans, journalists, bloggers, and everyone else.

Why on planet earth David Howe didn't stick to the first sentence of the first question in SyFy's FAQ is beyond me. It states the challenge very clearly: "Although we love the name Sci Fi, because it's a generic term, we can never own it."

Never mind for a moment that the Sci Fi Channel already owned the name from a branding perspective. And never mind its global argument (all of its other foreign networks are still named Sci Fi no matter what they say).

Let's take the FAQ at face value. It alludes to the challenge of introducing non-broadcast products, parks, gaming, technology, and online networks that go well beyond broadcast programming. That logic, and only that logic, is boring but sound. The strategy to make it happen, on the other hand, is flawed.

How To Expand Before Rebranding

Rather than rename the flagship, the Sci Fi Channel could have launched its new assets under the new SyFy name, creating a distinct brand over time much in the same way Apple branded Newton and Macintosh. After the new identity took hold, they would have had the option to circle back with a name that would mean something to someone.

In fact, the Sci Fi Channel brand might have protected the network from push back if any of the new products happened to, you know, suck. (Imagine what might have happened if Apple first changed its name to Newton. Eesh.) This expand first, circle back strategy would have been cheaper too, something people like investors usually appreciate.

Instead, SyFy has locked into an expensive top-down rebranding strategy with a name that nobody seems to like. And since they can't really reverse course, the executives are left with nothing to do except push, push, push it. If that isn't bad enough, the Sci Fi Channel will also have to relive the ugliness as SCI FI UK, SCI FI France, SCI FI Germany, SCI FI Spain, SCI FI Japan, SCI FI Italy, SCI FI Australia, and SCI FI Latin America have yet to be renamed and repackaged.

Each of these upcoming events could renew the fuel of fan branding — and that brand is that the new SyFy name as a brand smacks of executive stupidity. It may even set the stage for former Sci Fi enthusiasts to be critical of any new SyFy products in order to reinforce what they seem to the be saying — SyFy is headed in the wrong direction and the name does not smell as sweet.

Branding As Seen By A Guy Named Bill

William Shakespeare isn't often seen as a marketer or brand strategist, but Romeo and Juliet ought to be thought of as a branding primer. Inside the lines of the most-produced play in history, Shakespeare clearly asks all the right questions.

Montague or Capulet? Does the name really make the brand or does the brand encompass the qualities of an individual that one might be but worn with love? Ergo, brands are not names. Rather, names and phrases eventually become an encapsulated definition of all the meaning people associate with the brand. If not, then Juliet may have let herself be plucked by Paris.

So can be said for "SyFy." There is no context to make SyFy a brand. And, if anything, the fans are not only saying the new name doesn't smell as sweet. They say it's kind of stinky. Ho hum. For want of a name, they lost a brand.

For the new marketing or advertising student, it's a good lesson to take hold of and own forever. Say it over and over again: brands are not names and names are not brands. In fact, in the case of a network, the programming and other products make the brand and the name merely encapsulates it. For example, ABC doesn't feel limited to the alphabet.

I'm not saying there is anything wrong with renaming or rebranding a company. All I'm pointing out is a that a simple risk assessment might have suggested that you don't want to irritate 5 million Website visitors a month or the millions who helped the Sci Fi Channel climb to the fifth most watched cable network on television.

But alas, SyFy execs have done exactly that. According to Variety, they are even more irritated than they were when the Sci Fi Channel gave Starbuck a gender makeover.

Will they get over it? It's hard to say. Fans might have gotten over Starbuck, but this time SyFy doesn't have Kara Thrace to pull it off over several seasons. SyFy's shrug off of the fans and sell it attitude isn't helping much either. More on Monday.

Wednesday, July 8

Rebranding Disaster: Sci Fi Becomes SyFy

After 16 years of branding, the SCI FI Channel has officially become SyFy as of yesterday. David Howe, president of SyFy, announced the change last March, but SCI FI Channel fans seemed reluctant to believe it until the change actually took place yesterday. Some suggested it was an early April Fool's joke.

So why did they change it?

"By changing the name to Syfy, which remains phonetically identical, the new brand broadens perceptions and embraces a wider range of current and future imagination-based entertainment beyond just the traditional sci-fi genre, including fantasy, supernatural, paranormal, reality, mystery, action and adventure." — Sci Fi Wire


"Syfy allows us to build on our 16-year heritage of success with a new brand built on the power that fuels our genre: the imagination. Syfy ushers in a new era of unlimited imagination, exceptional experiences and greater entertainment that paves the way for us to truly become a global lifestyle brand." — David Howe


"It also positions the brand for future growth by creating an ownable trademark that can travel easily with consumers across new media and nonlinear digital platforms, new international channels and extend into new business ventures." — Sci Fi Wire


“The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular.” — Tim Brooks


"When we tested this new name, the thing that we got back from our 18-to-34 techno-savvy crowd, which is quite a lot of our audience, is actually this is how you’d text it. It made us feel much cooler, much more cutting-edge, much more hip, which was kind of bang-on what we wanted to achieve communication-wise.” — David Howe

No one is certain what 18-to-34 techno savvy crowd they tested, but former Sci Fi Channel fans have dubbed the name change the dumbest idea in television history. Comments left across the Web have ranged from disbelief to unrestrained anger.

What Are They Saying?

"Well, it's one step closer to "Spiffy.",

"This is a really stupid move and just goes to show you that the network has lost its way."

Syfy has emphasized its point that it's become a hollow mockery of everything its fans have known and loved.

Anyone else notice how “SyFy” looks like an abbreviation for syphilis?

Artistic misspellings are still hip, right? Isn’t that what the kids are doing on their internets?

Never mind two months of negative comments since the name was first floated. Howe is convinced, and says everyone else from NBC and SyFy is convinced too. In fact, despite saying the test market approved of the change, Howe claimed in another interview that they were totally prepared for the push back.

"We expected fans not to like it. The reaction from fans always same default reaction -- it's that we're going to abandon the genre." he said. "That isn't what its about."

So what is it really about?

Nobody seems to know. Most of the time, employees like Craig Engler, who manages the SyFy Twitter account, are too busy explaining what it isn't about to ever offer up a clear account of what it is about.

"No, we are not changing our programming mix … you pronounce it like 'sci-fi' … [it's not spelled wrong] Syfy is a made-up name, not a word, so it’s spelled correctly as is. Like Wii. Or Twitter …" — Craig Engler

Except, as the author behind the Warming Glow quickly pointed out, Twitter is an actual word. He even looked it up.

Of course, not knowing Twitter is a word seems minor in comparison to the notion that a rebranding campaign might boost interest in the opening of the Syfy Imagination Park in Rockefeller Center on July 12. On the contrary, the rebranding has buried it.

So in what can only be called an avalanche of negative public sentiment and press, the Sci Fi Channel has certainly been rebranded. Unfortunately, it has not been rebranded as Howe, Brooks, and Engler had hoped. But that stands to reason. Brands are not really names. Brands are better described as the relationship between consumers and a product, person, or even programming.

In this case, it seems to me that SyFy is establishing a new brand. And unfortunately, this new brand landing somewhere between silly and stupid or maybe just sad. There is so much wrong here, it will take a living case study to sort it all out.

That's right. This branding disaster is no moon. It's a space station. More tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 7

Marching On Taxes: Spirited Minorities

By comparison, Tea Party rallies across the country didn't seem to pack as much punch on July 4 as they did on April 15, which is the date Americans file their tax returns with the IRS. Any why would they, as they competed with one of most revered national holidays?

According to, 1,504 cities participated, which is down from more than 2,000 reported to have held rallies in April. However, despite asking marchers to give up a few hours of their holiday, the sentiment was still felt in those cities from Boston to Santa Barbara.

The Santa Barbara Tea Party

Led by Buffalo Bill (Rolland Jacks) and Calamity Jane (Patty Engel) on horseback, the Santa Barbara Tea Party & Culpepper Society Contingent provided a surreal and spirited conclusion to Saturday's Spirit of ’76 Foundation Parade, with signs ranging from "Party Like It's 1776" and "Mad as Hell!" Despite being on the roster, the Tea Party marchers in Santa Barbara even seemed to catch the emcee with a loss for words.

"Oh, and let's hear it for the First Amendment," the local on-air personality offered up.

The marchers — concerned with out-of-control government spending, the escalating deficit, and rapid government bailouts — were thin compared to the rally of hundreds at another event held the day before. And although nonpartisan, some the signage sported on Independence Day was decidedly conservative as it included signs that laid the blame on liberals.

Where the Santa Barbara Tea Party & Culpepper Society Contingent wins, however, is in its organization, friendliness, and diversity. Frequently, newscasts tend to lean toward providing older men on-air time. But in Santa Barbara, the marchers were well represented by diverse ages and ethnicities. The crowd was evenly split, with about half offering a show of support (and some joining in) while the other half was more concerned with heading to their cars before the parade broke.

Mixing Independence Day Messages

On one hand, holding Tea Party rallies on Independence Day seems fitting enough. On the other, it adds a sad concluding commentary on a day meant to celebrate a past that some people feel is quietly slipping away. And why wouldn't it?

Even excluding the postal service, the federal government is the largest employer in the United States with between 1.8 and 2.7 million civilian employees. Add in state and local government, and those government employees swell to 22 million, excluding education. Currently, education and health services account for 19 million jobs.

In counties like Leon in Florida, Champaign in Illinois, and Johnson in Iowa, government employment soar to 18 to 25 percent of total employment. When you consider total households, that may mean that more than 50 percent of all households in some areas have at least one government employee. And, when you add in federally funded nonprofit organizations and government contractors, it becomes relatively easy to see why voting against bigger government is not always in the best interest of the majority of Americans.

Of course, there are two sides of the coin. Some people claim that a high percentage of government workers provides a shield against unemployment. Others might argue that state and local government employees earning $10 to $20 more per hour than private employees are the cause, especially because more than 40 percent of those government workers are represented by unions (only 9 percent of private citizens are represented).

If health care is ever nationalized, it would mean more than 41 million people would be directly employed by government or almost 1/3 of the working population. It's an interesting statistic in that 1/3 of the working population would touch the majority of working households. And then what?

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