Monday, November 30

Engaging Consumers: Retailers Use Social Media

Deloitte’s annual holiday survey results provided the first glimpse of what some retailers already knew. Social media works.

With more than half of all consumers using the Internet to search for discounts, research gifts, and ask friends and family what they might like, retailers that engaged consumers via blogs and social networks are realizing a return on investment despite tighter budgets.

Some, like Toys "R" Us, launched their own apps to offer a sneak peek of the chain’s in-store Black Friday specials. Other retailers, like Staples, used social media to advertise price cuts of nearly 50 percent for Nov. 27 on certain laptops, GPS devices and computer monitors. A few retailers employed best practices to help consumers do everything from debug a new purchase to finding parking spots while independent sites offered shopping round ups, online and off.

The Three Phases Of Retail Engagement

For companies still hesitant to embrace social media on some level, there is a lesson to be learned. The flexibility of communication intent works on multiple levels — before, during, and after a purchase. The online environment intersects and overlaps the offline environment.

• Before The Purchase. Consumers tend to research products and services online, forming a composite from multiple opinions: manufacturers, retailers, reviewers, friends and consumers. Depending the approach, social media provides an opportunity for discovery, education, and comparisons.

• During The Purchase. Consumers, especially those with smart phones, are increasingly likely to use social media tools and technologies to locate where a product or service is based on proximity, price, or even to find specific information. While some companies still make the mistake of thinking consumers relate online sales to online stores, an increasing amount of customers use social media to decide which offline stores they might visit.

• After The Purchase. Consumers not only provide feedback and reviews, but also have an opportunity to engage retailers with questions and direct feedback. Retailers with an online presence can engage a percentage of consumers who are interested in receiving future announcements, special appearances, incentives, and/or discounts.

While retailers are still rightly concerned about consumer confidence, social media is providing an essential economic connection. Sometimes it is less important to convince more people to buy than it is to find those people who are already buying.

Thursday, November 26

Going Savage: Thanksgiving

"I do not feel able to encourage your art. It revolts me and I do not understand it." — Roujon, director of Beaux-Art, to Paul Gaunguin

In 1883, Paul Gauguin gave up his job as a successful stockbroker to free himself from the trappings of French civilization and sacrifice everything for his artistic vocation. Although most people might not known Gauguin as well as his friend Vincent van Gogh, his witty, wide-ranging and aphoristic thinking made a lasting impact on Impressionism.

Side by side with art, he wrote,
And his critics could not prevent it.
He penned his words much like his art,
Daring amateurs to try, and not lament it.

Primitive art on burlap sacks,
Naked flames and blackened sands.
His quest for talent over genius fed
By trading etiquette for native lands.

It was under Temetiu
His friends and family far behind;
A painter’s heart breaks, so far away
From the café, on the Boulevard, No. 9.

— Richard Becker, from his Figment collection

At first blush, this might not seem very fitting for a Thanksgiving post. But I've always been fascinated by the undercurrents of culture and unseen influence at the hands of people so easily diminished by others with measures of popularity and a prejudice for rules. Paul Gauguin was one of those people.

So in searching for things to be thankful for this year, I decided to settle on the people who read, comment, contribute to not only this blog but also the various social networks, message services, and public gatherings I subscribe to and participate in.

You make a difference.

So thank you, as I'm grateful for all those seemingly insignificant moments that have made up an immeasurable amount of unseen influences that, in some cases, have and will span my entire lifetime. Happy Thanksgiving. All my best.

Wednesday, November 25

Understanding Economics: Recessions Are Optional

On the day before Thanksgiving, the National Association for Business Economists predicted real growth in gross domestic product for 2010 would be 2.9 percent, up from its October forecast. The forecast is cautiously optimistic, even if the association anticipates the jobless rate might hold at around 10 percent through the second quarter of 2010.

While the estimates seem promising, and mirror other economic data, public sentiment remains stalled. Even among the readers of SmartBrief for CFOs, 42 percent of those surveyed predict the U.S. economy will not begin adding jobs until 2011 or later and almost seven percent wouldn't even hazard a guess.

So who is right? Economists? Employers? The general public?

While it might matter, its significance is about as important as knowing that the sun requires 226 million years to complete one galactic orbit or that our galaxy also moves up and down on a 62-million-year cycle, with biodiversity increasing and decreasing in relation to where we might be. Abundant biodiversity as well as planetary temperatures have historic relevance to our planet and how entire civilizations rise and decline. The people who measure this stuff are astronomers.

How outlook and communication play a critical role in experience.

My grandfather once told me a fable about a gas station attendant and two road-weary travelers looking for a new town to open a new business. While they arrived at different times, both asked the same question. Do you think this town would be a great place to start a business and settle down?

"I dunno," said the gas station attendant. "What was the last town you lived in like?"

The first man frowned: "It wasn't very good for business. The people were lazy, and genuinely unfriendly. Unemployment was high, people wanted to be paid too much, and the housing market had bottomed out. I can't say anything good about it."

"Oh," said the gas station attendant before leaning over to whisper. "You wouldn't like it here then. This town, it's exactly like that. You'd be much better off continuing on and finding a better place than this miserable place."

"Wow," said the man, smiling. "You sure saved me a big waste of time. Thank you."

When asked the same question, the second man smiled: "The people were optimistic, and genuinely friendly. Even in a tight economy, people were willing to work hard, appreciated our efforts in the community, and were generally optimistic about the future. If it wasn't for our expansion, we would have stayed there for years to come."

"Oh," said the gas station attendant. "You'll love it here. This town, it's exactly like that. You can continue on and look if you like, but mister, I think you just found yourself a new home."

"Wow," said the man, smiling. "You sure saved me a big waste of time. Thank you."

When people ask me about what I think about the economy and our outlook, I have two different answers because they are two different questions.

The big picture is pretty obvious, I tell them. As long as employers are waiting for consumers to spend more, and consumers are waiting for better employment, the best anyone can hope for is slow growth through the first two quarters for 2010. And for the most part, that is in line with most economic forecasts.

Our outlook, of course, is different. Since the recessionary pressures took hold, I have always said participation is optional. It is optional because we can either fret along with those best described as the 42 percent who now predict the U.S. economy will not begin adding jobs until 2011. Or, we could invest in finding the 17 percent who predict the U.S. economy will begin adding jobs in the first half of 2010. I'm interviewing my first hire for 2010 next week.

The same can be said for individuals. As much as I think Pat Olsen's post on How to Survive in an Unhappy Workplace might help some people, his third point is the most important of all. With the exception of abusive leadership, workplaces and cities and economies and galactic positions don't make you unhappy. Only you can do that.

It might be the day before Thanksgiving, but it's never too early to be grateful. Until tomorrow then.

Tuesday, November 24

Blacklisting Best Buy: When Ads Go Bad

Best Buy seems to have found more than it bargained for after it ran a national Black Friday advertisement inviting the world to celebrate Thanksgiving and Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Adha?

In case you do not know, Eid al-Adha is a Muslim holiday, "Festival of Sacrifice" or "Greater Eid," celebrated to commemorate the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismael as an act of obedience to God. The date it is celebrated is variable; this year it falls on Nov. 27. Regular charitable practices of the Muslim community are demonstrated during Eid al-Adha by the concerted effort to see that no impoverished person is left without sacrificial food during these days.

And from now on, Best Buy discounts too. The national retailer is standing by its decision.

Three reasons Best Buy is setting the foundation for its own crisis.

1. Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is identified with as a secular holiday in the United States. It began as an annual tradition in 1863 and a federal holiday in 1941. While it is sometimes tied to a religious observation in that some people give thanks to God, the primary celebration consists of bringing two cultures together for a harvest feast.

2. Christians. Christians are increasingly frustrated because tolerance does not seem to be a two-way street. In recent decades, it has been noticed that public, corporate, and government mention of the term "Christmas," for example, has been replaced with a generic term while other non-Christian holidays seem to have no cautionary constraints. Best Buy, specifically, does not allow Merry Christmas in its advertisements. It hasn't since 2006. (A Best Buy spokesperson has said it may be reversing that decision this year).

3. Muslims. While a spokesman for the Council on American-Isamic Relations said it makes perfect sense for a retailer to acknowledge and celebrate the holiday, one wonders if Muslims will feel the same way in considering the long-term commercialization of Eid Al-Adha. For example, national retailers do not generally recognize exclusively Christian holidays like Ash Wednesday. It is probably best if they do not.

The motivation, more than the message, is why Best Buy perplexes.

Best Buy's response — which draws attention to the fact that its customers and employees "around the world represent a variety of faiths and denominations. We respect that diversity and choose to greet our customers and employees in ways that reflect their traditions" — does not accurately reflect its past decisions to diminish other holiday greetings.

That seems to underpin the complaint and call to boycott Best Buy by some Christians, and not the lack of tolerance as suggested by anti-boycott proponents who have taken to defending the Muslim faith while making fun of those offended. The company, apparently attempting to capitalize on the confused state of the nation in regard to specific groups receiving a temporary "politically correct" pass, deserves some public backlash for its lack of public relations savvy.

From a public relations perspective, Best Buy is better served by a policy that embraces all faiths and denominations specifically or generally and not selectively or by PC popularity if it hopes to simultaneously include all those faiths and denominations. This might be especially true for a holiday like Thanksgiving, which is largely meant to be a non-religious, multi-cultural and national celebration regardless of how specific faiths and denominations choose to celebrate it.

From a more personal perspective, I neither support or oppose the ad nor do I support or oppose the boycott. I do, however, think that the pairing of Eid al-Adha and Thanksgiving demonstrates significant ignorance over the meaning of both holidays.

Monday, November 23

Stepping Backwards: Wellness & The Economy Study

According to a 2009 survey by Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness (SSW) on Wellness & The Economy, the current economic climate is having an adverse affect on wellness. Only 10 percent of the population feel wellness is related to being healthy, down from 47 percent before the recession.

Today, people tend to define wellness as changing behaviors, plans, and aspirations. And, the net result seems to be making the population collectively unwell. Their definition of wellness has been redefined as something as simple as paying the rent.

"While consumers haven't completely given up on the goal of health and balance, the definition of health has changed," said Johanna Skilling, director of strategic planning at SSW. "This means that as marketers, we have an important role to play in helping our constituents adapt to new realities in the marketplace."

As a whole, consumers are eating more carbs and sugars, exercising less, and investing less in their appearance. Equally striking was the assessment that most survey participants could be classified as affluent. Less affluent households are suffering even more.

Dropping another notch on the Maslow hierarchy of needs.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which is a model proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper, outlines a prioritization of human needs. It suggests people tend to pursue physiological needs first, security second, belonging third, self-esteem fourth, and self-actualization last.

Last year, it seemed apparent that the population was mostly focused on security — employment, resources, morality, and health. So if there is any validity in the SSW study, this might be another another step down. Today, people are satisfied with the status quo, provided it can meet their most basic needs.

Even among business leaders, meeting the most basic benchmarks seems to be enough. Marred by a global decline in perceived opportunities, increasingly competitive venture funding, and an over-pronounced fear of failure, 58 percent of companies are employing tactical, short-term initiatives that stress cost cutting and deferred investments (Ronin study) while, in the United States, there has been a 9 percent decrease in entrepreneurs under the age of 45 (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor study).

In other words, it seems older companies are being weighed down by institutional barriers that encourage protectionism (fight) and younger companies or would-be entrepreneurs are leaping toward the next opportunity before their existing projects are nurtured (flee). Ironically, both reactions come from the same emotion. Fear continues to be the primary economic driver, with relatively few exceptions.

What does that mean? The first companies that can remove fear from their planning will be the market leaders in the next decade. And the people who aspire to move their thinking beyond scarcity will likely be the more secure.

Friday, November 20

Frustrating Employees: American Airlines

It only took an hour for American Airlines to find and terminate Mr. X, a UX user experience architect working for the company, after he responded to a Web site critique offered up by Dustin Curtis, a designer who creates user interfaces and experiences.

"The problem with the design of, however, lies less in our competency (or lack thereof, as you pointed out in your post) and more with the culture and processes employed here at American Airlines." — Mr. X

In reading through more than 150 comments left on Curtis' post, I couldn't help but wonder about the confusion. Some people said the firing was warranted. Others said it was another example of the company's incompetence. Some said that it was somehow Curtis' fault. Very few seemed to find the truth. What's that?

Two wrongs don't make a right, they make a mess.

1. We can remove Curtis from the equation. He didn't do anything wrong in offering a public pitch. In a world where many people with experience and expertise can become a content publisher, companies and their employees have to expect and accept both praise and criticism. The only question: How will the company choose to respond or react to the communication?

If any company operating in the 21st century hasn't answered this question by now, they are inviting, even encouraging, crisis.

2. It is always unfortunate when someone is terminated over carelessness because they care. However, Mr. X clearly violated one of the most basic ethical tenants. Aside from American Airlines' non-disclosure agreement, it is generally understood that communicators protect confidential information and, at the same time, comply with all legal requirements for the disclosure of information affecting the welfare of others.

If Mr. X truly cared about the company, his response to Curtis would have been better sent to his supervisor to affect change.

3. Appreciating that there may be other grounds for termination that we may be not aware of, American Airlines demonstrates they clearly have an international communication problem. When employees feel more comfortable confiding about their experience to external sources of information over internal channels because they feel powerless to be the catalyst for positive change, then that is a problem. And now, it's a public problem with a greater consequence than any breach of non-disclosure.

American Airlines has to know it has flaws in its communication strategy given that everyone else does. A warning might have been enough.

Companies need to develop clear and concise response guidelines.

Without a more comprehensive understanding of American Airlines internal communication components, there isn't much we can do. However, it does seem clear that they need to develop clear and concise online response guidelines. Here are a few:

• Define who will respond and under what circumstances.
• Respond in a timely manner when the topic is still hot.
• Read the greater body of ongoing work to ensure you understand it.
• Recognize who the person, people, or media might be before you respond.
• Remain positive, reasoned, and focus on clarifications (unless your brand is satirical).
• Stay focused on the topic if you hope to maintain credibility, authenticity, and transparency.
• Recognize that engagement is a limited commitment, which may require a follow-up response.

Imagine how even a handful of points might have made a difference at American Airlines. Mr. X would have been allowed to respond as himself or known to forward any notes along to a supervisor. The authorized representative could have responded, possibly generating goodwill for American Airlines. Or maybe not, since the original post was obviously a public pitch.

The psychology of criticism and the art of the pause.

There isn't a tremendous body of worthwhile research revolving around the study of criticism and how people respond to it. Most people simply respond to it badly. Generally, it is because they tend to react as opposed to respond, which is why media relations training has a tendency to focus on the trappings of pointed questions.

Professionally, I try to teach people to accept criticism, provided it isn't cynicism. As I've proposed before, critics strive to be open, objective, and offer suggestions for improvement or make an effort to understand various points of view. Cynics are generally closed, biased, and reject that any merit exists or tend to promote their point of view while dismissing the validity of any other.

As a general rule of thumb, people are almost always better served by pausing anytime they feel an immediate emotional response to any particular comment. The pause allows us to process the information and ascertain intent.

Teachers, for example, are paid to provide constructive criticism. Managers are charged with evaluating performance. And the best reporters always ask tough questions to find the truth. Some bloggers too, employ criticism as a means of driving conversations forward.

In all of these cases, the intent is grounded in compassion for education, employee, public welfare, or special interest. We ought not to shy away from it, but embrace it. You don't have to accept every idea as valid, but critics often lend a few gems.

Thursday, November 19

Unifying Topics: In An Era Of Infinite Choices

The most blatant mistake being made by public relations and communication professionals focusing on the increasingly crowded space of social media is employing a methodology that can be best described as the last remnant of mass media.

The tactics are as simple as delivering a product, service, or brand message to as many people as possible as many times as possible. The outcomes are sales calls, junk mail, media pitch lists, and spam. The objective is to stand out in the onslaught of useless communication. The measurement of success is confined to playing a game of eroding percentages.

Ten years ago, a 10 percent response rate was the mark of success. Last year, a two precent response rate is the new high water mark. And more recently, some organizations have told me they'll take one percent any day of the week. The fix remains the same. Buy a bigger list to offset the diminishing return. Except...

Mass Media Has Given Way To Infinite Choice

Social media empowered consumers to trade in mass communication in favor of infinite choices. The consequence of this transition was profound, but not in the way most people think.

Mass media, which was largely ushered in by Baby Boomers in the 1950s, has had a much shorter life cycle than objective journalism, which was largely the advent of Walter Lippman attempting to professionalize journalists in the 1920s. As a footnote, it might be important to mention mass communication has a longer life cycle, taking form in the late 1800s.

Although most people conclude the Internet is a new medium within the greater context of mass media (including myself on occasion), it is more appropriately defined as an environment that has accelerated the adoption of infinite choice much faster than cable and satellite television.

Infinite choices are profound in that they move consumer thinking to the era that predates mass media, objective journalism, and mass communication not because of limited accessibility but through a means of self-selected exposure.

For example, if a consumer is faced with a choice of more than 10,000 local and national news outlets, they might pick three or five or ten (depending on their information tolerances). The impact increases the competition exponentially, forces specialization, and fragments audiences to such a degree that the entire mass media model crashes.

The tragedy is that despite knowing this, organizations are attempting to plant various mass media models in an environment of infinite choices. The result is increasing the number of their competitors to include not only direct competitors but every company on the Internet vying for fans (people cannot and will not friend 100,000 product pages), forcing them to amplify their message, and increase the risk of consumer brand fatigue.

Infinite Choice Requires A Better Model Than Mass Media

While there have been many early attempts to develop infinite choice tactics, most of them are nothing more than an attempt to modify the mass media model. Ergo: influencer targeting is nothing more than replacing one objective journalist with people who are more malleable (Edleman) and crowd sourcing is nothing more than an attempt to convince consumers en masse that they are stakeholders much in the same way vanity poetry press scams made poets out of everyone (Jarvis).

Neither construct breaks away from a mass media model. Neither is sustainable nor scalable as consumers have a finite amount of time. The same can be said for equally flawed models that include leveraging employees or elevating individual quasi-brand celebrities. All of it, not surprisingly, is mass media without the benefit of objectivity.

While not all of it can be solved within the confines of a single post, we do know that organizations operating within an environment of infinite choices have to remove degrees of separation between their products, services, and brands and the consumers they hope to reach. By removing degrees of separation, I do not mean leveraging employees and product fans to monetarily or emotionally blackmail family and friends to peddle products as some sort of multi-level marketing scheme without the benefit of revenue.

What I mean is that organizations have to develop points of communication that consumers can selectively connect to beyond the buzz of 'buy our product,' as illustrated by the top model in the illustration. (You can find a larger image of the Topic Unification Model right here.) Companies developing social media programs have to provide content that gives various publics different reasons to connect.

For example, if we apply the Topic Unification Model to fashion, a fashion designer not only has to talk about the product, but also about industry trends, points of inspiration, the fashion industry as a whole, and so on and so forth. Doing so allows different publics to find self-selected value from the online communication provided, and allows each designer to customize their topical context so that it reinforces the preferred company brand.

Individuals have been very effective applying this as a strategy of sorts (consciously and subconsciously). They attract friends, followers, and readers because those consumers connect with them as parents, photographers, communicators, political viewpoints, type of drinks they prefer, and so on and so forth. These conversations and connections have almost nothing to do with their professions.

Unfortunately, their success in selling personality like this sometimes leads to the mistaken belief that personality can supplant organizational communication. In reality, organizational communication still requires some semblance of an organization. Consumers don't just want to know what Jane Doe thinks about a complaint (despite how empathetic Jane Doe might be). They want to know what the organization will do about it.

To that end, organizations hoping to integrate social media are better served by broadening their communication from a narrowly defined product (can of soda) into a communication model that includes any number of topics that are much more interesting.

While the communication still needs to be managed within a context (soda marketers don't need to offer opinions about toilet tissue makers), broadening the scope of communication to a select number of related topics opens up connections with consumers who might not care about a specific product today. It also provides a better contrast among competitors, ensuring people will become engaged when they are interested as opposed to when it is convenient for a marketing accountability report.

Wednesday, November 18

Retiring A Deck: Social Media For Strategic Communication

Since my first presentation on social media in 2005, it didn't take long to appreciate that the entire communication field is a moving target. So I've made it a point to periodically retire the decks I've used at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in order to avoid having to teach the same class twice.

This version of Social Media For Strategic Communication evolved into 100 slides as the backdrop of a 3-hour open conversation. It was followed with a 3-hour live session, which allowed more flexibility in pinpointing specific applications.

Highlights From A Near Dead Deck

• Slides 1-10: Social Media. Every social media class begins with a working definition of social media, even if the participants are familiar with the term. I prefer the simplest definitions, which makes it easier to understand the complexities of what happens within this environment.

• Slides 11-14: Demographics. This year, more than any other, it seemed important to dispel the myth that Gen Y owns the Internet. The fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population consists of people over the age of 50. Another conversation point that has evolved this year is understanding that while everyone is on the net, not every demographic participates in every network.

• Slides 15-41: Media History. While many participants are surprised how much time I spend on the historic context of media, I've always considered it important to dispel the myth that such a change in communication in new. It's not. The only thing new is the medium and the accelerating speed of adoption.

• Slides 42-47: Declining Media. Some people might consider it stating the obvious, but the rapid uptake of communication on the Internet and decline of traditional distribution models remains a relevant part of the conversation. The additional communication point that has surfaced this year is how increased amounts of information will likely lead to a resurgence of objective content sources.

• Slides 48-64: Applying Tactics. Since almost every class includes people with varied exposure, I do dedicate some time to sharing practical knowledge beyond the conceptual models. This section also included four very different accounts, which allowed me to illustrate how social media is largely situational to each organization.

• Slides 65-73: Social Networks. With the addition of the live session, I didn't include new content within this section, which was originally created in spring. It's important to note that the numbers have changed considerably. BlogCatalog has added 40,000 members since the original slide was created.

• Slides 74-81: Content And Discovery Again, with the ability to offer live session examples, I spent less time on this section, preferring to underscore that the social media environment allows tremendous flexibility in sharing content from the ability to condense our portfolio into a Flickr presentation (and iPhone presentation) to the success story of Does It Blend.

• Slides 82-100: Changing The World While the slides were essentially lifted from our Shaping Public Opinion presentation earlier in the year, walking participants through a Bloggers Unite campaign proves extremely useful in illustrating that communication is fluid and how to better integrate crowd-sourcing (participation input) while providing guidelines that still allow for some sense of a managed communication plan.

What Might The Next Deck Look Like?

Since every deck I develop is tailored to meet the objectives of specific audiences, there might be any number of solutions for 2010. However, it seems increasingly obvious that presentations with case studies and panels, while still important, will be breaking away toward conceptual modeling that spans multiple disciplines and multiple destinations.

I'll be sharing one of those conceptual models tomorrow as an extension of last week's Rushing The Net: Public Relations post. The model illustrates why so many companies are developing limited connections that revolve almost exclusively around their products while the online environment is much more valuable as a means to eliminate degrees of separation.

Other topics I'm especially interested in pursuing in the near future include the loss of content objectiveness in the media, the advent of portable content experiences as they apply to radio, the application of our measurement model on a specific campaign (we're waiting on numbers), and next year's pendulum swing that will place a greater emphasis on expertise over popularity.

The latter will include a comprehensive research study we commissioned with a deliverable on or around SXSW, pending my increased travel schedule that is shaping up to include London, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., among others.

Tuesday, November 17

Fighting For Preemies: Bloggers Unite

"A bear and a hare have been to the fair. But not the hippopotamus." — Sandra Boynton, But Not the Hippopotamus

Every morning, well before sunrise, I would place Boynton's book next to my cell phone so I wouldn't forget it. It didn't really matter if some of the other Boynton books we kept might have read more upbeat. The story seemed to fit.

As other babies were being born to wide-eyed parents and heading home to be bundled in blankets, doted over by grandparents, and set free to start their adventures, our daughter had taken a detour. Every day was a fight for life inside the Summerlin NICU.

No one really knows why there weren't any warning signs on the first morning. My wife had simply noted that our daughter's kicking, which had started earlier than expected, had suddenly tapered off. Initially, the sudden change was almost dismissed, given that we hadn't even entered a kick counting stage of pregnancy. Instinct over intellect proved to be wiser.

It only took a few hours in the hospital to discover the truth. Our daughter was dying, and even the specialist who had been called in seemed uncertain as to why while listening to the amplified throb of her heartbeat, steady and strong, except every ten minutes or so when it would slow and drift quietly under the hastened pace of the hospital.

"When that happens, make a noise or do something to excite her. We can't let her drift off before your doctor arrives."

The task seemed easy enough, especially after surrendering to the gravity of the situation. Telling my son, after noticing the entire day had drifted away to indecision, when I picked him up from summer camp to take him to his grandparents so I could make it back, was more difficult. The excitement of having a sister in three months was all he could talk about.

"Well, I need to tell you something," I said during the car ride. "Your mom might have the baby today and there is a problem..."

She might not come home from the hospital for awhile. She might not come home at all. "She will," he said with certainty.

She wouldn't come home for three long months. As I was running up to the doors of the hospital, my cell phone buzzed with the news. Our doctor had arrived and they were prepping my wife for an emergency Caesarean. There was barely enough time to scrub.

Our daughter was born 2 pounds, 13 inches, at just under 28 weeks. Just a few days earlier, the survival rate would have been reduced to a coin toss. The odds are a bit better today, but there are no promises. If there were, they wouldn't change the location of the incubators to prevent visiting parents from becoming attached to neighboring early newborns. Too much can go wrong. Too much does go wrong.

For parents, having premature babies is best described as being like a Ferris wheel. Some days you leave the NICU with the anticipation they will be released in a matter of a few days. That can all change in a day. Or in an hour. Or in seconds, sometimes while you're sitting bedside (incubator-side) reading a story so they can become familiar with the sound of your voice. And you learn to step aside for the nurses.

And you learn to have patience in adversity, when real courage might mean standing firm as opposed to flying off to parts unknown. And you learn that every treatment carries a potentially permanent consequence. And you learn that tolerance for transparency carries a certain quota because people do not generally want to know the truth. They mostly want to know that everything will be all right so they can marvel at the resolve or maybe faith.

Over the course of the next three months, our daughter almost died or almost had permanent damage while undergoing 28 medication administrations; on and off respiratory support, ranging from ventilators and high air flow nasal cannulas; and 48 different medical procedures, ranging from phototherapy and blood transfusions to upper GIs and a lumbar puncture. She overcame two organism infections and five staph infections, with the worst of it being an infection that had adhered to her ankles and required surgery.

At the end of Boynton's book, the hippopotamus eventually is asked to join the other animals in their fun activities and adventures. Even after being discharged, there would be prolonged procedures, medications, and side effects. And even when the worst seems to be over, it's never really over. And yet, we're blessed.

"A bear and a hare have been to the fair. But not the hippopotamus." — Sandra Boynton, But Not the Hippopotamus

At the end of the detour — made amidst a gubernatorial primary, business expansion, and non-profit obligations — you come to realize the experiences we have are not a byproduct of the environment in which you reside or merely timing of events or even the perception of other people. Good or bad, experiences are what you make of them, wherever you are or whatever you're doing.

Of course, we can influence all those other things to some degree. And that is what I might ask you to consider today.

While the why behind the cause of our daughter's premature birth will never be solved because we did everything right, many preterm births can be prevented with prenatal care. It's important because every step you take can help reduce preterm birth, which accounts for more than one million of 13 million stories that don't end like our daughter's story or the analogy I made with Boynton's book.

Education will provide a means to solve part of the growing challenge. The rest comes from generosity and vision, as the numbers above only reflect a success rate of infants born preterm including 36 weeks. For babies like my daughter and those under 26 weeks, the success rate relies almost exclusively on medial research funded by people like us and you through the March of Dimes.

For those who already have helped, thank you. We're grateful, because it made a difference.

Monday, November 16

Projecting Sales: Retailers Look To Black Friday

If consumer confidence is any indication of what retailers might anticipate this year, beginning with Black Friday, then the best they can hope for is: the fear of a worsening economy may have had a greater impact last year than living in one will have this year.

Most forecasts suggest a small gain in retail sales over last year. And most consider the smallest gain good news, despite consumer confidence indicators there is some validity to the concept that they will be more cautious.

Consumer Confidence Highlights From comScore

• About 75 percent of consumers across all income levels are more afraid of the economic future than ever before.
• 46 percent of over $100k households/65 percent of under $50k households are spending less on non-essentials.
• 42 percent of all consumers across all income levels are overwhelmingly concerned about unemployment/job security.
• Fear of unemployment/job security increased in October all among 100k households and under 450k households.
• 56 percent of all consumers think that unemployment will not begin to improve in 2010.
• 32 percent of all consumers across all income levels are concerned about rising prices, with 100k households also concerned about the devaluation of real estate and financial assets.

Five Tips For Retailers Attempting To Leverage Online Shopping

• Retailers hoping to drive incremental sales in physical retail locations need to develop reasons for consumers to add their store to their shopping route. Sales are not enough; consumers are shopping for an experience as much as they are bargains. For example, a book store that already has an online component can win with physical events like key book signings.

• Retailers that are already advertising across multiple channels this holiday season (digital and traditional) need to align their advertising messages so that one tactic naturally leads into the next. For example, digital advertising might include in-store discounts or promotions and in-store sales might drive return visits online, with a clear indication of why it adds value.

• Retailers mostly know which digital marketing tactics (search, display, email, etc.) are driving traffic to their sites, but most are struggling to convert visitation into sales. There tends to be an over-reliance on general conversation with little call to specific action. Unlike physical stores where customer service agents can answer questions and direct sales, online stores rely almost exclusively on a browse-and-buy shopper. Retailers with a mechanism to engage customers online tend to have more success with demand fulfillment.

• Retailers seem to think they are able to find their demographic online and distinguish which will visit a site, but they are struggling to determine where category buyers are online within that demographic. While it would be challenging to initiate consumer engagement online one week out from the start of holiday shopping, social media programs that engage consumers could readily provide retail outlets with a better understanding of browsers vs. advocates vs. buyers.

• Search spend investments during the holidays is difficult to validate because the reality is that search spend investments are almost a defensive marketing tactic. During non-holiday seasons, it is easier to validate. During a holiday season, it succeeds mostly at protecting against competitors in the pursuit of diverting would-be customers.

Overall, all of the most common questions being posed by retailers pinpoint the real challenge this season. In general, they are all succeeding in increasing site visitation, but most are not converting those visits into sales. Simply put, there are more people buying online but those people are spending less and making fewer transactions and fewer dollars per transaction.

It is not a surprise, as the majority of online marketers seem better quipped to entertain consumers online than selling products or driving physical traffic. So how do you change behavior when the U.S. jobless rate has climbed to 10.2 percent (and the boarder measure has risen to 17.2 percent)?

With 55 percent of consumers saying that they have less money this year than previous years, it is critical for retailers to provide engaging incentives to buyers. According to the comScore report, the most common ideas are to offer free shipping, provide layaway options, and increasing their use of social media. However, where retailers may falter is in how they employ social media — blasting holiday discounts across Facebook and Twitter are unlikely to differentiate their stores.

Any successful social media model will likely be those that engage consumers much like in-store personnel might, directing consumers to their self-defined interests. Isn't that what we always knew about advertising? It works to get people in the door, but someone or something else has to close a sale that delivers value to the lives of the consumer.

Friday, November 13

Changing Behavior: Consumer Confidence

In coming out of what it defines as the Great Recession of 2008/2009, The Futures Company is setting its sights on a dramatic shift in consumer conscience and confidence beginning to take hold in 2010.

Specifically, The Futures Company sees consumers moving beyond the heightened sense of anxiety and economizing frugality that convinced them (and their employers) to operate from a sense of self-preservation and scarcity. However, in the new post-recession world, The Futures Company does not see consumers returning to an era of accumulation and indulgence. Instead, they make the case for an evolutionary step forward in thinking.

A Darwinian Gale Has Reshaped Consumer Thinking

In its recently published white paper, The Futures Company articulates attempts to identify the crucial characteristics of the marketplace to come, one that will be shaped by a new consumer confidence that would have a direct impact on how marketers, advertisers, public relations practitioners, and social media professionals might proceed. These characteristics include...

• Responsibility. Consumers will be much more responsible when making purchasing decisions, giving more consideration for what they purchase before they purchase it.

• Vigilance. Consumers will be much more watchful about their exposure and position, with every aspect of their spending being questioned and placing increased pressure on communicators to ally with their concerns.

• Resourceful. Consumers will be more resourceful, with an emphasis on the management and conservation of resources that they consider most important to them.

• Prioritization. Consumers will be much more likely to prioritize their purchasing decisions in the marketplace. While this won't change their aspirations, they will think of purchasing decisions as trade offs.

• Network Oriented. With increasing regularity, consumers will forge personal networks of support that they consider essential in a world of uncertainty. The net result will shift the pre-gale presumption of global convergence toward a post-gale world of local "exceptionalism."

Preliminary Conclusions About A Darwinian Gale

There is certainly some basis for the conclusions drawn by The Futures Company. In particular, they are right that marketers have grown too comfortable in an era of indulgence, where they knew what consumers wanted and delivered it to them with an excitement and intensity that compelled people to buy, even if it meant overextending their credit to do so.

They are right that the marketplace is in transition, but some of their glimpses into the future might be slightly offset by other trends that seemed to be dismissed. While there is no doubt consumers will invest considerably more time in defining value, there is an equally likely chance that this definition of value will be based on perception as opposed to reality.

While the current trend certainly suggests a shift toward populist behavior, due largely to an increased reliance on the Internet, we anticipate a pendulum swing back toward the center in regard to popularity defining value over objective thinkers defining value. It almost has to occur as communication continues to increase exponentially and public relations sets its sights on social media, leading to an increased infusion of biased communication in an effort to gain a perception of being valuable.

Much like yellow journalism ushered in objective journalism before many media outlets gave up on the concept in order to cater to stories that affirmed the beliefs of their readers and viewers, someone — either media or other parties — will have to become trusted advisers without individual or organizational agendas.

The other weakness in the white paper is the concept of moving away from globalization without considering the new geography of the Web. While local markets are an increasingly important part of the marketing equation, the white paper seems to de-emphasize the importance of the Internet's ability to create entirely new environments. People aren't only from their geographical locations but also from new destinations like online communities and certain social networks that do not recognize geography as a defining trait among members.

We also found a significant challenge in this world view. Given that consumers have learned that the work is riskier than they once believed, the construct still shows consumer thinking to be based largely on a fear mindset, which in itself has negative consequences, especially as the blame for an air of indulgence is being placed on the mantle of a free market system.

If you can get past some of these challenges, there are glimmers of realities to be optimistic about. The best of which stems from the concept that there is indeed an increased opportunity for companies, and communicators, to turn resourcefulness and innovation into tangible benefits that add real value to the world, which enhances optimism and consumer confidence (much like Steve Jobs did despite the 2001 recession). It is the most accurate assessment in the entire paper.

And from that perspective alone, A Darwin Gale might be worth checking out. Just keep in mind, as the authors freely admit, the future is not fixed.

Thursday, November 12

Rushing The Net: Public Relations

According to a new study by Vocus, an overwhelming 80 percent of public relations professionals see social media as a key focus in 2010. And as these professionals move toward social media in 2010, public relations may never be the same.

Why? Because when most public relations professionals think about supplanting public relations with social media relations, all they are really supplanting is media relations. And, as a result, the profession is setting its sights in a more competitive space that takes them further and further away from work that adds value to a comprehensive communication plan.

While there is significant overlap between public relations and social media, the perspective is not the same. In fact, many modern public relations professionals — especially those who tout relationships — tend to confine their relationships to people they perceive as having influence over the public they intend to reach.

Right. This was the same perspective that moved so many of them to overemphasize media relations because the tactic was simple: develop relationships with members of the media who had already captured the interest of a specific public and then add the total number of impressions to excite the client.

That model doesn't work as well anymore, because mainstream media seems to be hemorrhaging. So suddenly, those oh-so-important relationships with influential media as defined by 80 percent of the industry just doesn't seem to matter that much anymore.

Neither will most of those relationships in social media, as popularity tends to wax and wane. It's one of several flaws in the influence construct, made popular in part by Edleman. The irony is that it is also contrary to an effective social media program, which tends to allow people with seemingly no influence to become influential overnight (or vice versa) within specific publics.

You see, effective social media relies on the ability to see the world from varied degrees (e.g., one-to-one, one-to-many, and one-to-all) at the same time. And that often requires different skill sets that are not scalable for public relations firms alone (unless we are destined to see increased automated push communication, which is the worst possible practice being put into play today).

Most public relations professionals misdefine social media as a communication tool.

Social media is not a tool as much as it is a tactic, but there are tools within the space in which it occurs. More than anything, social media (people and technology) is what happens on the Internet, which is an environment in and of itself.

Until communication professionals understand this, their social media programs will be no more than either an extension of everything they did wrong with media relations or, worse, everything marketers do wrong with automated spam messages.

Quick Example: Yesterday, I wrote "Donations made at Who Will Stand screenings today benefit Help USA Las Vegas, which finds housing for homeless vets" on Twitter, to which Uloop replied "here's lots of available housing near CSN on Uloop." Um, right.

Not surprisingly to me, Jennifer Lawson, a non-communication professional, demonstrated to me over dinner that she has a better understanding of how things work more than most of the top communicators currently engaged in social media. Specifically, she understands that she writes for different destinations on the Internet and each content destination attracts a different group of people.

"Very, very few of the people who read what I write read everything I write," she said. "Some of them even have a hard time believing that I'm the same person writing about being a mom and then writing about sex. Whatever. I'm just me. Multidimensional."

When I teach social media, I try to impart a spatial concept to students. I suggest they think of the Internet as an environment. Within that environment, there are destinations much like we see in the physical world (e.g., we wake up at home, go into our car, drive to work, go to lunch, go back to work, head to the gym, attend an event, and go back home).

Online, it's the same. We wake up, check Twitter, connect to Facebook, check our reader, bookmark some pages on Delicious, share our findings on Twitter or Digg, leave comments on a few blogs, spend time on our own blog, etc., etc.

All the while, public relations professionals are now scrambling to drop us messages along the way, even when we are not traveling in the same destination loop or orbit. They don't often pay attention to what we are doing either. Ultimately, they simply deliver the same message over and over.

The message is to add their client's destination to our orbit OR convince someone else (presumably someone with influence) to do so. While they deliver their message, they ignore the obvious. The average blogger already participates in 10 social networks beyond their blog and those networks have multiple destinations too.

Bad news for them. People have a finite amount of destinations they can visit in one day. And, as Lawson seems to know, people don't want to visit them all, especially if you deliver diverse content. (There are a few who will, and those people are your true evangelists or, in some cases, fanatics.)

So how does an organization develop successful relationships on the Web?

I have a great deal of respect for many social media professionals. Please keep that in mind while I point this out: Most social media professionals are attempting to overlay individual communication models on organizational communication. And, frankly, that just doesn't work. They are not the same. Authors, entertainers, speakers, etc. are different.

If you don't believe me, ask Chip Conley who is discovering that his customers might not want to see his pics from Burning Man (not that there is anything wrong with Burning Man.) Go figure. And, as Bill Sledzik called it right: just because they buy your product, it doesn't mean they want to be your buddy.

While every social media model is different because all communication in an expansive environment (just like the physical world) is situational, online organizational communication also needs to be delivered differently depending on the destination in which it occurs. (e.g., you wouldn't put a television spot on highway signage, would you?)

So some social media programs might need banner ads in one destination, conversation in another, and community activities in another. If this is true, then it is also true that different deliverables in different destinations might require different communication professionals or different skill sets. And those skill sets range from direct marketing and advertising to public relations and customer service. Probably more.

As a result, if someone is hoping to develop a relationship via communication in these varied destinations, then focusing on those with perceived influence doesn't hold up. It's just more of the same. It's an attempt to rely on someone else's brand to peddle your stuff.

In reality, genuine relationships occur when you have an opportunity to touch people in various destinations that may or may not be your own destination. You know, just like real life.

If I see someone at work, at lunch, at the gym, and at some event later that night, I'm much more likely to develop a relationship with them (unless I'm constantly pressuring them to go somewhere else). Unfortunately, too many public relations professionals don't understand this (or at least not those who assume every relationship is just another opportunity to add one more body to an event). So before these public relations professionals rush the net, I suggest they change their thinking.

You see, the real challenges in social media is not attracting more followers, friends, fans, or whatever. The real challenge is having the ability to remove degrees of separation between the people you want to reach and the message you are trying to share. But to explain that, I'd need a new post. This one is too long as it is.

Suffice to say for this one, it seems to me that of the overwhelming 80 percent of public relations professionals who are planning to set their sights on social media, a mere 5 percent or less will survive such a transition. And, if they are not careful, they will damage their entire industry.

In some ways, they may have taken the wrong path already. Based on the rest of the survey, the writing is already on the wall.

Wednesday, November 11

Making Promises: Veterans Day

I met a boy on the ship coming over to Vietnam. He was a good guy from the state of Missouri. He was my friend. We lived in the same tent together, went into the An-Khe together, and spent most of our free time together. I got to know this boy well and he was my best friend. His name was Dan Davis.

On Monday morning, the 15th of November, he died in my arms of two bullet wounds in the chest. He said, "Ken, I can't breathe." There was nothing I could do." — excerpt from a letter from Kenneth Bagby, 1st Battalion, 7th Calvary, 1965

Forty-seven years prior, on the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" in 1918, armistice was signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Rethondes, France. The promise of armistice was peace, after a different generation of veterans prayed that their sons and daughters would never have to see the horrors of war.

In Belgium it is known as a Day of Peace. In France, Jour de l'Armistice. In the United Kingdom, it remains a day of remembrance. In Australia and Canada, people still wear red poppies and pause for a moment of silence at the eleventh hour. In Germany, Volkstrauertag remains a national day of mourning. And in the United States it was renamed Veterans Day to recognize and honor all veterans who served.

And yet, despite such promises made every year on this day, armistice continues to be a promise the world cannot keep. And children become solders. And soldiers are sent away. And when they return, sometimes only their mothers, families, filmakers, and bloggers remember them.

This Veterans Day is different for me. It is different because I recently had the opportunity to meet Phil Valentine, director/producer, and Michael Bedik, director of photography, who created Who Will Stand, a documentary that examines the experience of a dozen physically and/or psychologically wounded American soldiers who have returned from war. After watching this film, it reminds us that not only was the promise of armistice broken, but so too is the promise of doing everything possible for the men and women who have served.

This promise is broken to such a degree that some people even suggested that the documentary not be seen because it was too political, uncomfortable, and reveals some shortfalls in the system meant to care for veterans. I disagree. While it might be easier for the current administration to not hear the needs of veterans, we can be thankful people like Valentine and Bedik have given them a forum to be heard. They need to be heard.

“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” — Colin Powell

Are you listening? We're listening. Not only to filmmakers like Valentine, but people like Toby Nunn, Ron Portillo, and Dana F. Harbaugh, author of Pearls of Honor: Their Duty to Remember, who served two overseas deployments aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-61) and participated in Operations Earnest Will, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and the Defense of the Kurdish Peoples. People who have a great respect for servicemen and women.

• The Soldierʼs Project helps provide free counseling and support to military service members who have served or who expect to serve in the Iraq and/or Afghanistan conflicts and to veterans of those conflicts.
Defending Freedom raises awareness and support for servicemen and women with its Defending Freedom wristbands.
Blue Star Mothers provides support for active duty service personnel, assists veterans organizations, and is available to assist in homeland volunteer efforts.
The Wounded Warrior Project raises awareness and enlists the aid of the public in meeting the needs of severely injured servicemen and women by providing direct services that honor and empower wounded warriors.
U.S. Vets provides housing, counseling, job assistance, and hope to thousands of homeless veterans each year.
Soldiers' Angels is an international, volunteer-led organization supporting America's men and women in uniform that supports more than 30 projects.

To that end, Veterans Day doesn't need to be confined to a single day of recognition or remembrance. Rather, it can be the day that you ask yourself if you are doing something, anything, for the men and women who have already done something for you, regardless of the country where you live. Good night and good luck.

Tuesday, November 10

Advertising Sales: Razorfish Jumps A Conclusion

"What we're finding is that with Facebook and Twitter, marketers are assuming some deeper dialogue, but what's really going on is -- people want deals." — Garrick Schmitt, group vice president of experience planning for Razorfish

Really? We don't think so. Not exactly.

Schmitt is basing his conclusion on a study he edited, where 44 percent of consumers surveyed said that they follow brands online for deals as the main reason. This, of course, is partly true.

But where Schmitt might be making a mistake is in not understanding that there is a significant difference between the immediacy of a discount campaign and the sustainability of an engagement campaign. More likely, the relationship between the two is symbiotic. They work together.

Real World Experience Shows Engagement And Sales Are Symbiotic

• Case Study Snippet: Car Dealerships. In working with two car dealerships offering vehicle maintenance, one with a frequent direct sales approach and another with limited discounts but high engagement, we found that former dealership diminished returns on sales over the course of six months. Why? Consumers learned to wait for discount offers before making purchases, and demanded deeper discounts over the long term when the original discounts didn't seem so special anymore. The latter dealership increased sales over time as consumers identified them with quality first.

• Case Study Snippet: Resort Openings. In working with two casino resorts, one with frequent cash rewards and another with a bundled opening package, we found the former delivered a high return on the front end (first 30 days of opening) but then the campaign eroded as consumers demanded higher and higher cash incentives. The latter resort never offered a direct sale or cash incentive, but relied on heavy branding and anticipation that led to a 100 percent occupancy rate for the first 18months of operation.

• Case Study Snippet: Educational Value. In working to open a private elementary school in Las Vegas, the initial reaction was that the school would not do well because its tuition structure was three times higher than the next leading competitor. Not only did the campaign meet enrollment projections, but it also exceeded them by 21 percent. While we're certain every parent would have appreciated a discount on the $14,000 annual tuition rate, they didn't need one knowing that price point provided their child the best education in the area.

• Advertising Rule 6: People Lie. The real rub with looking at a study like the one presented by Razorfish is that people lie. In virtually every study we've seen, people indicate discounts, coupons, and cash back offers will entice them to buy a product or service. However, the reason people choose this answer is because everyone wants a discount from something they might buy. Yet, this is the very reason that Apple doesn't have to enter a price point war to drive sales.

The better conclusion from the Razorfish study would have been that engagement and discounts are often symbiotic.

In other words, once consumers are engaged and trust is established, they tend to respond favorably to purposeful discounts, assuming sales are not the only message used to produce an outcome or keep them engaged. So while Schmitt is right in that outcomes — not impressions — are the real goal of companies engaged in social media, he is wrong to think that discounts or sales are a primary communication solution.

The balance of the Razorfish study is useful intelligence. But again, we would caution anyone against applying the interpretation of that data, especially if it leads to the overindulgence of discounts and sales. After all, the other word for such marketing tactics tends to be familiar. It's called SPAM. Please don't do that.

Monday, November 9

Reaching Mainstream: Social Media And Social Networking

Palo Alto Networks released a new study that pinpoints just how much social media, social networking, and collaborative Internet applications for business has increased in the last six months. What makes the study unique is that it considers organizational usage as a significant measure in determining adoption.

Highlights From The Palo Alto Networks Study

• Twitter session usage grew more than 250 percent since April 2009.
• Facebook usage increased by 192 percent, surpassing Yahoo! IM and AIM.
• SharePoint collaboration increased bandwidth usage 17-fold since April.
• Blogs and wiki posting increased by a factor of 39, with bandwidth increasing by 48.

The study also shows that there is an substantial increase in adoption all applications that are collaborative in nature (social media and social networks) for personal and business use. While employees are likely to use these tools for personal reasons, they also use them to increase business productively. The continued crossover suggests companies increase employee eduction on the subject of balancing authenticity and transparency.

Key Applications To Watch In 2010

• SharePoint grew by 48 percent in usage, compared to Oracle Collaboration Suite and IBM Lotus Notes, which only increased 11 and 12 percent respectively.
• Twitter, despite being limited to 140 characters, experienced a 775 percent increase in bandwidth usage, accounting for more than 184 MB of information per organization.
• LinkedIn was adopted by 89 percent of the organizations surveyed, but bandwidth and usage per organization has declined 42 percent and 22 percent, respectively.
• Facebook Chat, while released in April 2008, has become more widely used than Yahoo! IM and AIM (within the survey sample).
• Blogging by organizations has increased in usage from 22 percent to 51 percent in since April 2009.

The study cites The McKinsey Report on Web 2.0, which reveals that 69 percent of companies have gained measurable benefits in innovation, effective marketing, and better access to information. All of these benefits have lead to lower costs and higher revenues.

It also cites a report from AIIM, which also concluded that the top three business benefits cited by organizations include: knowledge sharing, information gathering, and the increased speed of communication delivery.

You can find the full report, which also addresses security issues, here. Palo Alto Networks specializes in next-generation firewalls.

Based on the Revised Technology Adoption Life Cycle, social media and social networking seems to be well over the mainstream curve with the late majority struggling to catch up. Anymore, organizations without any online presence will likely be left behind.

Friday, November 6

Injecting Fear: Who Caused The H1N1 Controversy?

There is a question being asked more and more by government leaders: Is the fear more harmful than the H1N1 flu?


While many school systems are asking for parents to sign the forms and have their children vaccinated, a few school nurses have already given the swine flu vaccine to students who didn't sign up — including a Brooklyn girl with epilepsy. She wound up in the hospital and then a health worker tried to have the mother sign a consent form after the fact.

Even as some U.S. health officials said the new strain isn't nearly as dangerous as they first feared, President Obama declared it a national emergency. Doing so, regardless whether the reason is warranted or not, grants the government additional powers.

According to the Associated Press, 75 percent of the population fears the vaccine, with 33 percent saying they don't want it nor will they give it to their children. The FDA has been busy trying to fight these fears while attempting to quell fears on the other side of the aisle. Some people are afraid there is not enough to go around, which is especially likely since the U.S. is donating 10 percent of its supply.

And then there are all the other theories. Some claim the vaccine was rushed through the FDA; others claim H1N1 is being used as a weapon against health care reform. Some claim it is to fund drug companies for their support of health care; others claim it is a government conspiracy to immobilize people. Some say people are ignorant not to take it; others say people are ignorant if they do take it. And so on and so forth.

When communication fails, fear spreads faster than the reality.

In one telling CBS news program, Dr. Jennifer Ashton compared the the seasonal flu, which accounts for 36,000 deaths (200 per day), to H1N1, which had accounted for 593 deaths (or about 4 per day). The greater difference is in the people, with a higher death rate among people under 65. (For people in southern Nevada, you can fact check here.)

While most of the opinions don't really add up, one fact does. Mismanaged communication is dangerous, and the H1N1 communication has been mismanaged. So how did that happen?

It seems that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention planning assumption placed the infection rate at 40 percent, which is higher than some reports previously stated. (The study by Purdue University researchers projects that 63 percent of the U.S. population will be infected by the end of this year.) At 40 percent, H1N1 could cut deeply into the essential workforce. (The CDC has been working to temper some of these estimates.)

Once the federal government saw these estimates, it had a choice. It could believe or dismiss these figures. If it dismissed them and the worst happens (e.g., the Purdue study), then it receives criticism for not doing enough. If it accepts these numbers and does not deliver a vaccine, then it receives criticism over its vaccination plan. If it accepts these numbers and nothing happens, it receives criticism for overreacting (like last spring). And so on and so forth. You get the idea.

With so many losing propositions, the administration chose the path of least likely criticism. The message became: H1N1 is something to worry about enough that you need to be vaccinated, but not enough that you should worry if you don't get vaccinated because the promise of 120 million vaccinations by October came in at 11 million. Huh?

The path of least criticism is a lack of leadership.

The message was so weak that the government seems to have completely lost any semblance of public trust in regard to H1N1, which empowered a groundswell of competing voices to fill the void. When that happens, the media become even more inclined to cover the conflicting messages over and on top of the "threat to public safety" headline. And so, fear spreads.

Whose fault is that? The only one responsible for the fear pandemic is the federal government and its unwillingness to designate a single coherent voice on the subject from the start. Senior adviser David Axelrod has already admitted as much, noting that the White House also over-promised on the country’s flu readiness and vaccine availability.

Ironically, despite that admission, the administration has yet to take responsibility or hold anyone accountable. Instead, the government has gone on the defense, which has become all too commonplace lately.

The solutions in this case are virtually an exercise in common sense. Effective leadership gives up on public relations in the face of crisis communication. It realizes that being a critic doesn't replace leadership. And, above all, it understands that fear is more dangerous than the flu.

Thursday, November 5

Crowd-Sourcing Responsibility: Pepsi

As a marketer, PepsiCo appears lost. As a company, it might be in trouble.

While there is something to be said for experimentation, PepsiCo has canned more marketing misses than hits in the last year. In an effort to continually target the next generation, it seems to have forgotten how to be a business. In fact, if it wasn't for its salty snack holdings being considered a staple, we suspect its fizzy drink section might start to dry up.

In some ways, it has. In October, PepsiCo Americas Beverages unit reported a 6 percent drop in volume and a 9 percent revenue decline. According to some analysts, the result reflects a change in buying habits as consumers shifted toward juices and teas and away from soft drinks. That might be true, but 6 percent is twice the drop experienced by Coca-Cola.

Marketing Mistakes Are Clubbing PepsiCo

In most circumstances, we think it's great when companies turn to crowd-sourcing for a single campaign. It helps many of them steer clear of isolated creative ideas that don't resonate with consumers.

PepsiCo has had its fair share of those: identity redesign, election revolution, Tropicana rebrand, iPhone app, and, well, you get the idea. (All of it might not be so bad if it wasn't for its negative publicity, but there has been some of that too.)

So, in an effort to put its product marketing back on track, Pepsi is pushing to try something new. It will put the reigns of creative control in the hands of consumers who will be charged in choosing which advertising agencies will handle three product launches. Say what?

In a contest beginning this month, Mtn Dew (Montain Dew for those unimpressed with the stylized abbreviation) will hand off marketing duties, at least temporarily, for a $100 million-plus business to several potentially unknown players selected by consumers. The concept, if you can call it that, is an extension of DEWmocracy, which allowed consumers to determine the flavor, color, packaging, and names of the new products.

"If we're going to have a dialogue with consumers and have consumers play a role in dictating the future of our brand, they've got to play a role in all aspects of it," Brett O'Brien, Mtn Dew's director of marketing, told AdAge. (One commenter on the article suggested they open up marketing director recruitment to crowd-sourcing too.)

Crowd-sourcing Runs Amuck With Pepsi

While Mtn Dew will retain BBDO Worldwide, which was part of DEWmocracy from the beginning, the agency will not comment on the process. For the efforts of DEWmocracy, Beverage Digest reports Mtn Dew is one of the few soft-drink successes, with a volume increase of 1 percent. However, it's unclear if DEWmocracy had much to do with it despite what's being said.

In some cases, DEWmocracy consumers seem to be experiencing brand fatigue, with drop off at each stage of the contest concept. (Some people even speculate that Pepsi stacked the odds for the company favorite.) On Facebook, every few posts also contain consumer comments that lament over the loss of their top choice. ("Any chance to bring Pitch Black back?"). And like many social media efforts, the fans are mostly left on their own, which is usually a mistake.

That's not to say that outsourcing the creative selection process to consumers is all bad. It clearly makes the marketing department not responsible for the $100 million decision. It truly leaves the consumers in control of the product, which means their relationship to the contest and each other may supersede any relationship with the product. It also places an emphasis on "I like it" advertising, which is best described as a three-second knee jerk reaction, without considering things like, er, sales.

Of course, there is always the chance that the finalists will not only be good, but be better than a one hit wonder. They'll almost have to be better once Pepsi funds the three finalists to produce a :15 TV DEW spot (assuming oversight doesn't dampen their spirits). And, they might also do better than what pushed Mtn Dew to this point before settling on Distortion, WhiteOut, and Typhoon as product names.

Anything is possible, right? We'll see. If nothing else, DEWmocracy makes for an interesting case study in consumer crowd-sourcing despite its similarity to gambling at a roulette wheel. Then again, we suppose it couldn't get any worse compared to some of the other company's marketing mishaps of late.

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