Thursday, December 31

Recognizing Reader Picks: Top Posts Of 2009

With the new year upon us tomorrow, we would like to say goodbye to 2009 with a recap of this blog's five most popular communication-related posts, based on the frequency and the immediacy of reader views after posting.

"What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?"

It is probably no surprise that our call for business leaders and government officials to change their communication struck a chord with consumers and communicators. After all, if we were to pick one word to summarize a common theme in 2009, it would be fear.

The message behind the post, which was part of a three-post series, was simple: if you want real change, you need hope over helplessness. And since most "leaders" seemed to struggle with the concept, we advised our friends and readers to ignore them and set out to find their own cheese. We're glad some people did because our government continues to push fear.

Related Labels: Psychology, Economy, Leadership

The Candy Gamble That Didn't Pay Off

For all the buzz-up Skittles earned in early March, nobody is really talking about the rainbow colored candies anymore. After the initial drunken rush of excitement generated by a Skittles experiment that turned its Web site into a collection of social media streams written by consumers, most people woke up with a hangover.

Within 48 hours, 44 percent of the public was left with a negative impression of the candy for trying too hard to be "cool" and eventually demonstrating it and the agency behind it were really clueless about social media. Effective branding, marketing, and social media require much more work than simply "turning over" a brand to consumers.

Related Labels: Skittles, Social Media

Communication Measurement For A Return On Investment

With so many conversations revolving around about how to measure a return on investment for social media and communication in general, we decided to share a formula that we've put into practice in order to measure a return on communication.

[(B • I) (m+s • r)/d] / [O/(b + t + e)] = ROC

Since January, more than 10,000 people downloaded the abstract from our Web site. And, after the initial post, the ROC series that followed remains one of the most popular published here.

Related Labels: ROC, Strategic Communication

Peanut Corporation of America Poisons Public Relations

The Peanut Corporation of America's handling of public relations after causing a salmonella outbreak will forever be remembered as one of the worst crisis communication scenarios in history. For almost three months, the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) tried to spin its way out of any responsibility for contaminating as many as 2,100 peanut butter products.

The crisis eventually ended with the company filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, after the FDA and several investigations finally concluded that the PCA acted with gross negligence and was responsible for sickening over 600 people in 44 states and Canada. The contaminants were also linked to nine deaths.

Related Labels: PCA, Crisis Communication

How Publicity, Public Relations, Social Media, Marketing, And Advertising View Publics

Published in two parts, we presented a model of how publicity, public relations, and social media and then marketing and advertising tend to view their publics. Both posts seemed to hit a home run in pinpointing why there are varied views on how to approach social media.

We remain vigilant in our belief that social media is best viewed as a new environment that deserves an integrated methodology incorporating all means of communication. From our viewpoint, integrated communication seems to be the best source to develop effective methodologies.

Related Labels: Social Media, Public Relations, Advertising

Five additional topics that came close in 2009

Where Edleman PR sometimes misses on the finer points.
• How spontaneous online debates can sometimes trip up experts.
• A satirical view covering everything silly in social media.
The ugly truth about some online consumer reviews.
How to demonstrate authenticity without actually saying it.

When I first started this blog in 2005, I used to lament that the biggest mistakes always seemed to overshadow the best practices. That seemed to change in 2008 as we accomplished a healthy mix of both. This year, communication models and theories have helped provide a better blend of communication-related topics. It makes 2010 seem even more promising.

In closing out 2009, I would like to extend a very special thanks to everyone who joined the conversation on this blog or across any number of social networks where the discussion tends to take place more frequently than in the comment section.

If you are one of the 3,500 subscribers or someone who visits on an occasional basis, I cannot thank you enough for making 2009 one of the best yet. It makes a difference to me, it's appreciated, and I'm grateful for having crossed paths with so many people online and in person.

Wednesday, December 30

Walling Up Content: Good, Bad, And Ugly

"We fundamentally believe that the readers should pay one price and get all or any of our content. If you don't pay, you don't get anything." — Neil Stiles, president of Variety Group.

And so it begins. Newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters have more or less collectively decided that the time for consumers to pay for news and entertainment is 2010.

The Good. When we covered the outcry for popular television shows like Veronica Mars and Jericho, fans of these shows overwhelmingly supported funding their favorite programs over leaving them to the fate of ratings or advertisers.

Would it have been possible? Maybe, except broadcasters are likely to want consumers to purchase all the duds along with a few gems and watch advertisements too. Unless the price point is right, consumers won't do it.

The Bad. That brings us to the bad. The average cable bill is about $85 per month, up 21 percent from two years ago, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Some people pay as much as $180 per month for the privilege of having access to more content than they can or want to consume.

With Fox and others asking for more fees, those rates will likely climb higher whether consumers watch those channels or not. As prices rise, more consumers may opt out entirely, increasing the burden on subscribers who remain while reducing the size of a marketable audience.

It seems likely that cable providers will eventually have to move to a pay-per-channel model rather than sacrifice their business. The same is happening with what used to be print. Consumers on tight budgets will narrow the number of content providers they are willing to pay for and that means plenty of content providers will disappear in 2010.

The Ugly. And that brings us to the ugly. Not all content providers produce content worth reading or watching and, given a choice, consumers will skip them all together.

Newsday, which was one of the first to move back to a paid subscription model, is steadily losing readers. At $5 per week, it's too much when other news sources are available.

When cable operators are eventually forced to move to a pay-per-channel model, imagine what would happen when a content provider like CNN loses more than 30 percent of its audience like it did this year. A reduction in subscribers will mean a reduction in revenue. A 30 percent cut in one year may not be survivable.

The Reality. I believe that content creators need to be compensated. They deserve to be.

However, the reality is that most of them were too slow to develop a working advertiser-supported online model five years ago only because they wanted the best of both worlds — two distinct revenue streams, online and offline. And now, because that did not work out, they want consumers (and advertisers) to pay for the mistake.

Meanwhile, there are an increasing number of free content providers — news, entertainment, analysis, advice, etc. — providing increasingly competitive content. And while they might not be multi-million dollar conglomerates, some will eventually give mainstream a run for their money, with a better value for advertisers as they reach more people with searchable content.

"Good programing is expensive. It can no longer be supported solely by advertising revenues." — Rupert Murdoch, News Corp.

Right on. Except nowadays, good programming is not enough. It has to be "better than" programming. Assuming consumers have a discretionary income of $100 per month for news and entertainment, that means they can afford approximately 10 to 20 channels/publishers at an average of $5 to $10 per piece in a tremendously competitive industry where local publishers/news outlets are competing with national publishers/news outlets as well as an abundance of free consumer-generated content, expert-generated content, and marketer-produced content. Hmmm ... good luck with that.

Tuesday, December 29

Having Conversations: Online/Offline Works Together

When John Moore, chief evangelist for The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), shared a slide from his presentation deck that places online conversations at 10 percent and offline conversations at 90 percent of all word of mouth conversations, some people mistook the statement as somehow diminishing online conversations. It doesn't.

Even Ed Keller has tempered his firm's research. The only reason word of mouth online is so small with 43 million brand impressions created through word of mouth conversation on blogs, in chat rooms, and on social networks is because the offline measure is so big, with more than three billion word of mouth conversations taking place offline.

However, even this temperance creates misunderstanding, especially when coupled with the Harris Poll (June 2009) cited by Keller. It's problematic because conversations that occur in social media do not happen in a vacuum.

Online And Offline Conversations Are Interdependent

Misinterpreting data has become all too commonplace in regard to social media. And the most common misunderstandings always seem to hinge on someone isolating data in support of or in order to distract from social media. It makes no sense, but it happens nonetheless.

What marketers need to know is that online conversations spill into offline word of mouth conversations and offline conversations have a tendency to become word of mouth conversations online. In some cases, online conversations provide marketers with a reflection of what is being said about their brand offline, e.g., if nobody mentions your product or service online, chances are nobody is talking about your product or service offline.

For some companies, that might be fine, I suppose. There are plenty of businesses that succeed on a small stable of customers or can confine their marketing to a specific proximity around a brick and mortar shop. (My company did for years and years.)

But for most companies, word of mouth means something. And while the reflective nature of social media is sometimes distorted, making something appear more important online than it is offline (or less important for that matter), it's interdependent nonetheless.

Even social media consultants know this to be true. There are several paths to boost awareness online and offline, and not all of them are exclusively online.

• Attending conferences attracts blog readers and social network connections.
• Being involved in associations and organizations attracts blog readers and social network connections.
• Speaking engagements attract blog readers and social network connections.
• Appearing on news programs, being interviewed by the media, and writing guest columns increases awareness.
• Publishing a book, even those that are nothing more than big business cards, drive online readership.
• And so on and so forth.

Conversely, the opposite is true too. A well-read blog or reasonably well-connected social network can elevate the awareness of someone (or a company) so they are more likely to be invited to speak, be quoted, etc.

I've talked with enough very visible social media consultants to know. While many of them credit social media as driving their success, social media represents a surprisingly low percentage of their daily activities (maybe even as low as 10 percent).

Ironically, this conversation isn't new. It has been going on for years and years with different players — direct mail vs. television, public relations vs. advertising, and so on and so forth. None of it is really accurate. Marketing and public relations work best when integrated, reaching people across multiple communication channels online, offline, et al.

Monday, December 28

Seeing The Future: Ten Trends In Advertising

In predicting ad industry trends for 2010, The Wall Street Journal turned to some of the largest advertising agencies in the world. So we thought it might be fun to recap the ten biggest predictions with a realistic persepctive of which ones might be right and which ones aren't really predictions at all.

The Top Ten Ad Trends, According To Global Ad Agencies.

1. Social networking personalities will be chosen as mass media spokespeople, sharing the spotlight with celebrities. — Christian Haas, Goodby Silverstein & Partners

While some social media personalities have been tapped to pitch products online, the move will be much less effective for mass media. While we might see experimentation in 2010, it seems less likely that social network celebrities can reach offline audiences or, more correctly, outside specific niches unless they have an offline presence (such as an author). More likely for 2010 will be advertisers borrowing the online verbiage of everyday consumers because we're still five years out on Haas' prediction.

2. In an effort to prevent television commercial zapping, commercials will share the screen with behind-the-scene glimpses of the show. — Richard Gagnon, DraftFCB

The experiment will take place, but consumers will find split screen commercials even more annoying than full screen advertisements. More likely, networks will continue to block fast forward functions during commercials (as they already do online and some cable stations have been experimenting with for the better part of two years).

3. Mobile advertising will see its first test with longer-form entertainment. — David Lubars, BBDO

Mobile advertising is still three years out from becoming a preferred means of long-format entertainment viewing. For this trend to take hold, it will require the tech sector to integrate mobile docking stations into everyday electronics. It's much more likely mobile advertising will invest in interactive functionality, e.g., Foursquare.

4. Mobile marketing will help consumers find what they are looking for at local stores in the forms of apps and widgets. — Daryl Lee, Universal McCann

Considering apps and gadgets that direct consumers to locations have been on the drawing board for the better part of five years, the idea is spot on but hardly predictive.

5. Marketers will shy away from individual celebrities and athletes in favor of sponsoring teams, leagues, and events. — Tony Ponturo, formerly with Anheuser-Busch

Ponturo bases part of this theory of on the Tiger Woods affair. It's not the first time (nor will it be the last time) that a spokesperson has fallen from grace. Marketers might pull back from high profile celebrities in 2010, but only to save money, before finding new celebrities with a mass market appeal.

6. Consumers will give their personal information in return for getting the ads they want to see. — Tracy Scheppach, Starcom MediaVest Group.

Consumers have already proven that they "want" privacy, but are increasingly likely to give it all up for the smallest incentives. This trend isn't a prediction as much as it has been in progress for a decade. There is less push back with each step Facebook and Google make to improving their analytics for advertisers.

7. Employees will become the new pitchmen for their companies, with their employers allowing them to talk enthusiastically for their companies online and in mass media advertising. — Marian Salzman, RSCG Worldwide

Seeing employees represent their companies online and across mass media channels is common, and can be better described as a throwback concept. The idea of employee talent has been around forever, with the use of employees gaining and losing ground over the course of several decades.

8. The luxury industry will embrace social media and leapfrog other categories in digital marketing. — Daryl Lee, Universal McCann

While the idea might seem to be in contrast with the concept of a more conscientious consumer, luxury-oriented industries will be making the move to increase their presence online and they will do it better than other segments. The real challenge will not be leapfrogging over other offerings as much as it will be to identify buyers as opposed to window shoppers.

9. In an effort to reduce costs, marketers will enlist more animation and virtual talent in ads. — Richard Gagnon, DraftFCB

It seems likely that marketers will attempt to employ more characters in 2010, but any results are likely to be spotty. Consumers have been leaning toward interactions with real people.

10. Companies that used to fund content will look for more tangible benefits such as offering free WiFi at the airport. — Christian Haas, Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

The idea is right, but it's hardly predictive. Companies have been rolling out free WiFi for more than a year. This trend will continue far into the future as telecommunication and cable companies eventually become future content distributors, regulating networks to be content creators.

Bonus. Ads will be made on the cheap as advertisers cut costs with the emphasis of their budgets being redirected to connect with digitally savvy consumers on iPhones. — Rob Schwartz, TBWA/Chiat/Day

This is probably the least predictive idea of bunch, but social media experts like to read it. Most advertising agencies don't see this as a trend as much as their challenge. Big budget productions and massive ad buys were how most agencies become big players. Now, with social media taking hold, they have to work harder than ever.

While it might not happen next year, the general direction of convergence is certain. Mobile devices will eventually be all things to all people with larger devices (televisions, projectors, sound systems, and desktops) becoming little more than docking stations with more power and bigger screens so we can retain the more social aspects of entertainment.

As this shift occurs, it will change entertainment and advertising in ways we never thought possible, with optional, consumer-selected marketing never being any further than our fingers. In other words, expect the public to be able to bookmark advertisers' incentives during their favorite programs and then follow up once the show is over. It's obvious, really.

Thursday, December 24

Wishing Everyone: Happy Holidays

Even the tiniest intentions can change familiar pattens into unexpected possibilities.

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas.

Copywrite, Ink.

There has been a lot talk this year about people trying to reinvent their industries, change themselves, or become something else entirely. It isn't difficult.

With even a tiny bit of imagination, a circle can become so many different things: an ornament, reindeer, snowman, holly leaf, lollipop, or any number of others. How splendid.

So this year I wanted to share a dual message with my friends, family, a few colleagues, and now you. Exploring possibilities is easy. It only takes intention. Remembering you are a circle, on the other hand, requires some effort.

No matter your intentions in the months ahead, I hope you imagine them fully while never losing sight of being yourself. It's what I like about people most. Happy holidays and merry Christmas. Until next week ... good night, good luck, and good fortunes.

Wednesday, December 23

Fragmenting News: "Driven Media"

Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who's faking it more? — Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University and author of What Are Journalists For? might have posed his question last April, but its poignancy will become front and center in 2010. Although people like to poke fun at "old media," there is no such thing.

Old media has gone the way of the dinosaur. And if you missed it during the last decade, it's because things rarely happen all at once. They happen slowly. Old media went out with a whimper, not a bang. And I suspect most people don't even know what we've lost.

I think about it all the time, given I'll be teaching Writing for Public Relations this spring. It will be my tenth year teaching this core requirement for a public relations certificate program, but it might as well be my first.

With exception to the AP Style Guide, the text I once required (Writing in Public Relations Practice: Form & Style by Doug Newsom) has become largely obsolete. I've decided to make it elective, but only because there has yet to be a textbook published that I can justify requiring students to purchase.

The change hinges on what has become the fragmentation of media. There are some remnants of traditional media, but the entire field has been fragmented and the lines between the various practices are blurred. Tomorrow's public relations professionals have to know it all, but even their days are numbered as 80 percent of them think social media is the answer to everything when it's only the answer for some things.

What has been propped up in the place of traditional media are six divisions of journalism-like content. (I'm only offering up six divisions to help people get their heads around it. Most are blurred, blended, or feature multiple content divisions.)

Six Divisions Of Modern Media Content

Editor-Driven Media. This is the last stand of anything resembling traditional or old media, which is still one step removed from objective journalism. The concept is simple enough. "Experts" choose the news, with the best of them following in the footsteps of their professional predecessors and the worst of them attempting to set an agenda or practice "he said, she said" journalism, which is something people like Rosen and myself have railed against time and time again.

Blogger-Driven Media. While the vast majority of bloggers have no intention of becoming citizen journalists, public relations professionals have given some of them the first call leverage they need to be popular (sometimes in exchange for positively slanted reviews). But even without direct intervention by companies, bloggers have filled various special interest niches with the only real requirement being the time it takes to develop, market, and nurture a blog. Like it or not, bloggers can set the agenda for what receives attention and what doesn't based on variables as varied as the topics they write about.

Citizen-Driven Media. While most bloggers never aspire to be citizen journalists, there are a handful who do. Some of them used blogs to share content that resembles, aspires, or even competes with journalism on networks like the fledgling BrooWaHa, The Blog Paper, or any number ofdozens of others. Crowd-sourced content, like the Wikimedia model, fits well enough within this division too.

Consumer-Driven Media. While it might resemble editor-driven media on occasion, the presentation of facts are biased to provide consumers with the "news" they're looking for and/or an affirmation of their opinions. While the editorial team still calls the shots, they skew to trump up their circulation online or off using any number of tactics. Two of the most common: news dictated by what's hot on the search engines today or simply building niche content for special interests, left or right, so people with specific opinions can tune in to find preset facts. (e.g., if you think the country is on the right or wrong track, there is a news program for you.)

Propaganda-Driven Media. Special interests have done an excellent job at shifting traditional news desks toward special interest agendas or creating entirely new media outlets predisposed to researching, sourcing, filtering, and presenting information that is designed to support nothing other than a point of view. Years ago, it was called yellow journalism. Today, it's called progress. It's also disingenuous to the public because important topics like health care reform no longer have objective forums to vet out the worst of it.

Advertising-Driven Media. I recently read a post (but forgot to bookmark the link and backtype didn't pick it up) where a public relations professional said that the separation of news and the advertising desk was no longer needed. He went as far to say that it is part of the evolution of journalism. Within his context, it's not an evolution but a regression. Sure, I support companies establishing their own content online (heck, that's what we do), but the other form is much less authentic. Specifically, advertisers are setting the news agenda at media outlets.

The net outcome, at least in the short term, will be exactly what Rosen framed up, except with many more divisions than "he said, she said" media alone. People will be asked to sort out who's faking it more, despite their current predisposition to choose based on nothing more than popularity, affiliation, and social media metrics.

Get ready for a bumpy ride in 2010. It seems increasingly likely that it will be the year when the public makes its choice: do we want to support what we and/or our associates believe (true or not) or do we want to support those who are attempting to objectively pursue the truth (even when we don't want to read it)? I'm hoping for the latter, but am tasked with helping public relations students understand how to work in a world based on nothing more than the former.

Tuesday, December 22

Missing The Problem: AT&T

“The way we see the problem is the problem.” — Stephen R. Covey

Believe it or not, AT&T doesn't have a network problem. Not really. What it has is an increasingly critical public relations problem. And until it sees public relations as the real problem, things won't get much better.

Bob Geller was among the first to call it so, citing an article that confirms AT&T's throughput is 40 to 50 percent higher than the competition, had faster average download speeds, and signal strength of 75 percent or better more frequently. Most challenges are simply related to the adoption rates of data hungry consumers.

And yet, AT&T's strategy in the AT&T-Verizon smackdown continues to aim at censoring the Verizon message as much as it wants its own message out there. The latest attempt included purchasing two day-long "netblocks" across the entire Time Warner cable division. Sites included CNN,,,,,, and The "netblock" buy was a step up from the ill-advised lawsuit, but not by much.

Even more telling than the actions of AT&T is how people react to what it says. When Ralph de la Vega, president of AT&T Mobility, framed up the company's challenge to convincing consumers to curtail consumption, most people translated his message to mean restrictive monthly usage limits. He meant something else, but the reaction still gives everyone a glimpse of how much consumer trust is bestowed upon AT&T — not much to none at all.

AT&T unwittingly reinforces the Verizon message.

Do you see any patterns in the actions of AT&T? Censor. Block. Drop. Limit. Curtail.

None of these words resemble anything close to what you want associated with a phone company or cellular network. And yet, almost every AT&T article includes those words, which prompted Saturday Night Live (SNL) to drive the point home with a joke.

How did it happen? Simple.Verizon is employing a classic political campaign strategy in its bid to regain the top spot. Verizon defined its competitor before AT&T even knew it was in a fight. Since, AT&T has unwittingly done everything possible to reinforce that message in an attempt to defend its brand.

But as the old saying goes: if you're defending, you're losing. And AT&T is certainly defending. Even with its Luke Wilson ads, which are meant to be an attack, it still comes across as overly defensive.

As a side note, a second message that seems to be sticking is that AT&T is somehow more "Ma Bell" than Verizon. In reality, both companies are decedents of the same parent. AT&T seems to own it, except in Vermont where they call Verizon "tinker bell" instead of a "baby bell."

So how was it that AT&T was defined by its competitor?

Once a negative message sticks, it's increasingly difficult to shake off. A quick situational analysis reveals how it happened:

On the front end, there were some existing misgivings about AT&T simply because it won iPhone exclusivity. Back then, it was Verizon that looked foolish and greedy. However, when AT&T and Apple launched the iPhone 3G, it did underestimate the demand on its HSUPA network.

The added data demand did impact service, which Verizon leveraged in its "there's a map for that" campaign that makes it appear as if AT&T has virtually no coverage. The campaign was a stretch, but AT&T all but agreed with it by launching a lawsuit that Verizon laughed at, along with everybody else.

What's not covered by the various insights and posts from public relations professionals, however, is the grassroots impact. Basically, Verizon made what was a "sluggish" challenge seem to be a real "deal breaker" with enough noise that everybody heard about it. But that's not where the real stickiness occurred.

The stickiness happened because anytime an iPhone customer had a problem during the campaign, they couldn't help but to think their problem was related to what Verizon said. Adding self-inflicted injury to this insult, AT&T went on the defense. Doing so only affirmed that there was a problem and AT&T was trying to cover it up.

When it couldn't win with legal, the counter attack came too late to be anything but defensive in the face of Verizon's "the truth hurts" rebut. After that, AT&T confirmed it had a problem and somehow its message morphed into blaming consumers.

How to fix the fiasco for AT&T.

AT&T still seems to be a better carrier in a world where every carrier is challenged by increased demand. Detracting from the ability to pay for these upgrades are price point wars that make many phones free, with strings attached. In addition, many phone companies are struggling because they have to have to support 3G services, maintain 2G services, invest in 4G services, and (in some cases) improve bandwidth along land lines.

That is part of the tradeoff for being in a high demand industry. And, it's only going to become more challenging as the future of all communication becomes mobile. (In the future, the only thing that will separate a device is the docking station).

So where does that leave AT&T? It needs to focus on its Achilles heel, which is obviously public relations.

Stop Defending. No one can dismiss a problem while confessing there is a problem. AT&T might as well own it and stick to talking about the future and its upcoming solutions, which include increasing the availability of free WiFi.

Start Selling. As good as the campaigns look, tit for tat campaigns don't work when they are the result of failed lawsuits. A primary message needs to be forward focused. Despite what many people say, AT&T is looking much further into the future than Verizon. It has been for a long time.

Centralize Social Media. AT&T needs to centralize its fragmented social media program. It is so fragmented, most people don't even know which typo-heavy account to follow on which social network. Once they figure it out, they are often directed to follow someone else. Their Facebook pages are no exception: walls filled with fluff, customer complaints, and spam.

Shore Up Public Support. It would be easier if the social media architects knew what they were doing, but they obviously did not. (The AT&T social media program is in itself a case study in why author-consultant expert models are not scalable.) So in the short term, AT&T might fare better with localized campaigns that reach out to customers in specific markets and communicate solutions to those markets.

Generalize The Attack. There is no reason for the market share leader to elevate the name ID of the number two service provider. As the current market leader, it makes more sense to generalize any attack messages so that anyone who knows Verizon will get the message while anyone who doesn't know Verizon won't be introduced to them.

For example, Verizon feels justified in doubling its early termination fee to $350. The penalty is far and away more expensive than AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, which charge $175 to $200 and prorate those charges over the course of the contract.

AT&T coming out strong with a short-term "no penalty" enrollment program would hurt Verizon. Without mentioning the competition, it would give AT&T an opportunity to brand Verizon as a company that tries to trap its customers while demonstrating that AT&T is not afraid to let new customers leave if they don't experience better service. Of course, that would require making good on that promise or at least presenting a compelling plan to make it work.

The alternative is to keep taking lumps and invest heavily in a 5G network (whatever that means) that will leapfrog over anyone attempting to develop a 4G network. That strategy served Apple well when when it changed smart phones forever.

Ultimately, however, unless a company is poised to think four or five years out from anyone else like Apple tries to, the lesson AT&T has to embrace is one of the toughest of all. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you have the better product or service. It only matters that people "think" you have. And if they don't believe it, you can't talk your way around it.

"You can’t talk your way out of what you’ve behaved yourself into.” — Stephen R. Covey

Monday, December 21

Counting Consumers: Consumer Reports

If anyone is looking for more evidence that The Futures Company might be right in predicting a dramatic shift in consumer conscience and confidence in 2010, the newest Consumer Reports survey seems to support a portion of it. Consumers are spending slightly less and are less willing to take on debt during the holidays.

Highlights From Consumer Reports Survey

• Consumers traded in unique finds and specialty stores for mass merchandisers (41 percent), online retailers (39 percent) and department stores (21 percent). The primary reason given was bargain hunting.

• Consumers are increasingly using cash as a primary form of payment (76 percent), with debit cards (51 percent) and credit cards (48 percent) falling by a wide margin.

• Consumers who are using charge cards intend to charge less ($636 vs. $723 in 2007), and plan to pay off any debt faster than previous holiday seasons. Last year, 61 percent had paid off holiday credit card debt by January; only 27 percent carried that debt beyond March. And 13.5 million Americans still carry 2008 holiday debt.

• Consumers are planning to purchase 15 gifts, with women out-spending men 16 to 13. Most of these gifts are classified as practical.

• Consumers are planning to shop between Christmas and the new year, with almost half taking advantage of post-holiday sales (81 percent) or purchasing gifts for themselves they did not receive (69 percent).

Overall, consumers planned to spend less on gifts. While spending plans are down, the holiday season has been welcomed by retailers. The Retail Index, which is a component that measures purchases made in November, rose 24 percent at the start of holiday shopping. This is despite consumer sentiment being low, as few have experienced financial improvement during the last six months.

What retailers and advertisers might glean from holiday shopping patterns is that consumers are focused on making smarter purchases, less willing to take on debt, and more likely to respond to common sense-driven marketing messages over affluence-driven purchases. Almost 80 percent also relied on social media for recommendations from friends and family and to find better deals, even if they made their purchases off line.

Friday, December 18

Revitalizing Teams: Five Steps To Success

Steve Tobak, a marketing and strategy consultant based in Silicon Valley, published a five-step process for turning around demoralized, underperforming groups.

His timing is right. The holidays provide a great opportunity for a psychological reset, with the first two weeks of the new year being the best time to establish a new direction, assuming executives doesn't derail the team by looking back at 2009.

Tobak's 5-Step Process For Turning Around Groups.

• Understand how it got that way.
• Pick your leaders, and add new hires.
• Rebuild reputation with executives.
• Set challenges with realistic goals.
• Demonstrate value to the company.

Enhancing The 5-Step Process For Revitalizing Groups.

Tobak estimates that his process will take a year or two, which seems to be far, far too long for modern companies and organizations. Most of the world, nowadays, needs measurable results in 180 days and demonstrated traction inside of 90. It's achievable, with some modifications to the process.

• Situation Analysis. Tobak is right that you have to have some understanding of how you got there. The strongest part of his post includes five of the most common reasons.

• Establish A Strategy. Before picking any leaders, set a new purpose for the group. What is it that the group is about and how does that fit within the company? It's especially important to set the strategy before picking leaders because individual positions within the renewed group might be different depending on that strategy.

• Establish The Tactics. Determine the baseline for work that needs to be done (and prioritize it) within the strategy. This will help you pinpoint where you can maximize individual team members in ways you may have never considered before. Then, and only then, if there are any holes, consider new hires with specific skill sets to fill them (but only after the next step).

• Set Challenges With Goals. Except, rather than simply setting them, it's more worthwhile to host a team meeting after priming key individuals within the group. Although you can have a frame work, it's important to let the team set those goals — not the mandatories, but rather what would constitute overachievement.* By the way, I suggest doing this step prior to adding new hires so the original team can own it.

• Demonstrate Accountability. I don't really believe you can "rebuild" a group's reputation. Reputation is an outcome. You "rebuild" the group's ability to achieve goals and reputation will follow. You can set the stage internally, with regular team meetings to report on individual progress. (You might want to meet with specific people before the group reporting, ensuring they have met mandatories and/or are ready to explain "why" they have not with feasible 30-day solutions.

*I flagged this point because in working with nonprofit organizations, political campaign teams, and even small- to medium-sized companies, I've found setting two bars can make a big difference. The first bar is a mandatory goal; the second bar is an overachievement goal.

The reason is simple. Having a second reachable overachievement goal ensures the group won't stop producing after meeting any minimums. In every group where I've established two bars, 90 percent tend to shoot for the higher goal, and the remaining 10 percent meet mandatories but don't feel pressured or demoralized for only reaching the first bar.

For example, oversimplified, if someone in charge of programs has a mandatory goal of hosting two programs in 180 days, the overachievement goal might be to host three, with the third being the one that they have the most flexibility to produce. Special projects like that, which are really an extension of goals, are often seen as an incentive as much as a goal.

Again, Tobak does have a strong start with his 5-step process. My enhancements will help make it move faster.

Other than that, there is only one more thing I might adapt. Any time I have the opportunity, I discourage companies from creating environments where different departments have to vie for limited resources. It's counter productive and demonstrates a lack of leadership.

Sure, I appreciate that many companies are run in this fashion. But that is the point, isn't it? It tends to show, much like it probably showed in the group before you decided to turn it around.

Thursday, December 17

Influencing Nothing: Social Media Influencers

There is seldom a week that goes by without at least one early social media adopter advising companies to target "influencers."

And every time I read such advice, I cannot help thinking that for the best intentions, some of them are missing the point. In attempting to transplant the media influence concept onto social media, they drift further and further away from the truth.

Individuals as "influencers?" Not really. It seems much more likely that real influence is a function of authority, credibility, and ideas than anyone who happens to enjoy some temporary position of popularity based on comment counts, follower counts, or any other algorithmic measure.

Authority. Whether they are "popular" or not, people in authority have influence. The owner of a social network, for example, can order the change of any number features, leaving members to weigh any changes against the value of their connections on the network. Sure, some people might gripe, but their "influence" is confined to the length of membership.

Or, if you prefer an offline example, the President's approval rating has dipped below 50 percent but he still has significant influence in this country and a somewhat diminished influence in the world. His predecessors have much less influence after leaving office, naturally. The same can be said for authors, who tend to be as good as their last book once the buzz dies.

Credibility. The primary reason the media became influential is because they remained objective and largely unbiased, which is a fundamental criteria in being credible. Journalists pursued the truth, with their influence only waning in the last decade in favor of affirmation-slanted journalism, advertiser pandering, and tabloid sensationalism.

With social media, credibility might be established with authority, but credibility will dictate whether or not they will retain any influence once they leave a group. Pander too much to "friends" or tactical "followers" or attempt to profit off those relationships and the crowd that followed certain people at the last expo will be gathered around someone else. (We've all seen it.)

Ideas. Establishing credibility is long-term investment in new ideas or the ability to draw new perspectives on old ideas. While there is always healthy discussion on whether or not content is king, it certainly is a commodity that separates real influence from perceived popularity or a temporary association. Ideas build credibility.

For example, some people are followed because they are popular or were recommended by someone else. Other people are followed by smaller crowds because they consistently add value. But on any given day, someone with great ideas related to a specific subject will surge ahead for a variable amount of time.

Where does this leave the influence brokers?

Considering that none of the above is trackable beyond maintaining real time insight, it leaves them on a path to nowhere. In some cases, in terms of social media, several influential adopters have already fallen by the wayside as their authority drifted away with the loss of a position, their credibility was crushed by making some questionable choices, or their ideas didn't measure up beyond a flash in the pan.

The real takeaway here is that individuals aren't influencers at all, but rather the actions that some individuals take have influence within very specific spheres that do not necessarily cross over into other spheres. And not surprisingly, the most credible communicators know it.

David Armano frequently reminds people that a surge in popularity doesn't always mean quality. Jay Ehret has enough insight to know people and companies ought not bend to consumers and keywords for want of traffic. Geoff Livingston took time out from his travels to include a line about people who are "legends in their mind." Shel Hotlz recently cautioned companies that catering to consumers can fragment a brand much like a "Yes Man" eventually destroys his own credibility. And Valeria Maltoni purposely made it a point to avoid sensationalized topics that help boost popularity. The list goes on.

The other list, those who preach influence as the key to the equation, goes on too. I thought of including links to them as well, but don't want anyone to mistake one bad idea as indicative of them being bad people. They're not. They are instead stuck much closer to the middle of their social media thought process.

Suffice to say that the best of them know they don't influence me or anyone else, but sometimes they have an idea that might influence me and everyone else. And the most mistaken think they and others have influence over people indefinitely and across almost any subject.

Wednesday, December 16

Making Sacrifices: Critical For Entrepreneurs?

There seems to be an entrepreneurial paradox being framed up by Jason Cohen, founder of Smart Bear Software, and Tim Berry, founder of Palo Alto Software. And they are not the first to do it.

Cohen suggests maximizing your chance for success means sacrificing health and family. Berry suggests that success can be achieved by a measured approach, which could save you from an early grave.

The paradox is a classic Aesop's story about the tortoise and the hare with a few modifications to capture the spirit of modern entrepreneurs. Let exhaustion supplant arrogance as the hare's potential undoing, and then take away any guarantees that the tortoise will cross some mythical finish line. Life, unlike the fable, doesn't come equipped with one.

The hare forgets that success cannot be measured by scarcity.

If you have to sacrifice health and family to achieve some arbitrary measure of success, then you aren't successful. As Berry rightly points out, placing work before life doesn't guarantee you'll cross the finish line. And even if you do reach some imaginary line, there is a good chance that you won't have as much time to enjoy it.

Chances might even be that you'll only work harder to protect it. Or maybe, you'll realize that other measures might taste sweeter as Arthur Miller explored in the character of Willy Loman. Or maybe, your own sense of self-worth might produce some conviction that somehow you have to sacrifice work in order to rebalance your life after reaching some unknown destination.

The tortoise is sometimes resigned to enjoying leftovers.

Where Berry is a bit off the mark is that his plan requires a heavy dose of self-discipline. Having met plenty of would-be entrepreneurs, authors, and inventors, most don't have it. And yet, most of his fundamentals and fine tuning requires it. Rarely do people understand they usually end up in the place they are in because of decisions made three months prior.

Of course, there is also no guarantee that the apple, let alone the worm, will be there when you arrive at any destination. So sometimes being someplace first is paramount to success as Dennis Yu, CEO of BlitzLocal, offered up as advice to small business owners. In some cases, you don't even have to be the best, just first.

Would you rather be the tortoise or the hare?

The answer is much like two sides of the same coin. The hare might get there first, but there is an equal propensity for more mishaps along the way and a dilemma that "self-sacrifice" sometimes carries an interest rate much steeper than one might expect. The tortoise might be inclined to stop and smell the flowers at the expense of finding only crumbs at the next crossroad of opportunity. So which is it?

The question is a trap, of course. Choosing heads or tails neglects the obvious. All coins have three sides, and the one you want has the thinnest edge of all. It denies choices always carry duality.

Modern entrepreneurs (and marketers for that matter) are best served when they can muster enough self-discipline to follow Berry's model but augment it with Cohen's passion and tenacity at precisely the right times. Or, in sticking with the metaphor of a modified race based on Aesop, the best entrepreneurs are marathon runners with enough reserve to sprint at the right moments.

As Copywrite, Ink. enters its third decade (founded in 1991), I've run the company at both speeds only to find I didn't like either. So, I eventually settled on the edge. You have to make your own road rather than choose on the one less traveled while keeping in mind that the journey is ten times more important than the finish line, given finish lines don't exist.

Tuesday, December 15

Looking For Market Share: Verizon

In 2006, beginning with a boost from rumors of the iPhone, AT&T accomplished something few would have thought possible. It captured market share in a field that was once dominated by Verizon.

Everyone knows the primary reason. The iPhone was the only smart phone capable of turning the tables on the cellular selection process: Whereas most people chose a carrier and then a phone, Apple and AT&T convinced people to buy an iPhone regardless of the carrier.

Today, the iPhone commands about 23 percent of the market share, which undoubtedly keeps AT&T in the lead position as a carrier. The effect on Verizon has been profound.

After grossly underestimating the impact of the iPhone and serving up a series of distress campaigns, Verizon has finally decided to draw a line in the sand and set its sights on clawing its way back to the top.

In 2009, Verizon invested heavily in a multi-front comparative attack against its competitors that now rounds out three of the top ten most expensive attack campaigns this year: $100 million to introduce Fios against Comcast (unrelated to the AT&T spat); and $100 million to introduce the Droid as its weapon of choice against AT&T.

Framing Up The Verizon vs. AT&T Smackdown

Saving the Comcast battle for another time, the two-prong iPhone/AT&T attack seems to be working but not in the way Verizon anticipated.

While it has gained ground, it has yet to recapture significant market share away from AT&T. It is also a long, long way from generating profit on smart phone sales given that Verizon spends about $100 per $199 Droid for advertising and offered customers a $100 rebates.

In terms of awareness, Verizon's attack against AT&T and AT&T's counterattack have generated brand awareness for both companies, with Verizon eking out a slight lead.

In terms of market share, the Droid seems to be capturing people who decidedly wanted iPhone features without (less so) the Apple brand and/or (more so) AT&T service. Still, in the third quarter, AT&T signed up 2 million new subscribers; Verizon signed up 1.2 million new subscribers.

In term of public relations, Verizon clearly comes out on top despite consistently fudging facts. What is interesting is that AT&T has a better network, but public perception consistently positions AT&T as an inferior network. (Here is the truth that was buried beneath the bad publicity generated by an ill-advised lawsuit against Verizon).

In terms of marketing, AT&T seems to be relying too heavily on its ability to be exclusive iPhone carrier. If the contract ends in 2010 or 2012, AT&T will be forced to find new solutions ... unless it can reverse its partly undeserved image. (While most consumer reviews place AT&T second in terms of dropped calls, people talk about it as if its last. It's not.)

When you add it all up, AT&T will be in a real fight next year to retain what began as Verizon's unwillingness to meet Apple's initial conditions to be an exclusive carrier. While AT&T previously held a better marketing strategy and still holds the superior market share, it has yet to communicate tangible consumer benefits in terms that resonate with the public.

*Comparison chart by Gigaom.

Monday, December 14

Predicting Trends: Ad Agencies Brace For 2010

Earlier this month, David Poltrack, chief research officer for CBS, predicted broadcast advertising revenue will increase 5 percent next year. Poltrack made the case that with the exception to some cable networks and NBC paying too much attention to overnight ratings, an increase in broadcast ad buys is good news for agencies.

While this might be good news for advertising agencies, Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Group, isn't as excited about incremental improvements. Like Sorrell, several holding company CEOs are pointing to extreme client cost-cutting as the main reason they expect flat organic growth in 2010. Most predict broadcast ad spending to increase less than one percent. Sorell himself said that an economic recovery is the only thing that will reverse the trend.

"I don't understand this degree of optimism. Basically, things are less worse than they were," he summed last week.

So which is it?

Brian Morrissey, writing for Adweek, presented an interesting perspective that finds the balance between marginal growth and no growth for advertising agencies. It might not be the economy. It might be a fundamental shift in the kind of agencies winning accounts.

"Yet the general expectation is that the number of these jobs will increase, particularly as digital initiatives become core not only as marketing channels, but as internal drivers of innovation," he wrote, citing Ameriprise, which was won over in a review that included Publicis & Hal Riney, as an example.

Whether or not you believe digital agencies can take the lead over traditional shops is less important than pinpointing what is happening in traditional shops today. By in large, many are missing a piece of the puzzle for 2010. It's not the economy. It's everything else.

The truth about "traditional" advertising agencies in 2010.

The moniker alone is one challenge. If advertising agencies get stuck with the label that they are traditional, they may be dead in the water within five years. Successful agencies, by their nature, have never been "traditional," a term that now applies to an overemphasis on big budget broadcast creative and ad buys. Unfortunately, that focus will not likely pay the rent next year.

Worse for "traditional" agencies attempting to wait out the economy will be the perfect storm. Despite being well-suited to move into social media, most have been lax in the uptake of the low cost counterpart. The result is three-fold beyond the moniker: agencies have adopted hiring freezes, demoralizing their creative teams; budgets are shifting toward digital, reducing mainstream budgets; and the lack of movement to understand the space at a slower pace than public relations has helped fuel their primary competition, which is generating increased revenue that will allow them to steal away "traditional" talent.

If you need more evidence, think back to the Forrester Research survey that found of 100 global interactive marketers, only 23 percent believed their "traditional brand agency" is capable of planning and managing interactive marketing activities; 46 percent did not believe they were capable. Where the Forrester Research study stops, however, is in adding the economic pressures of marketers over the last two years.

Unlike when advertising agencies were slow to pick up Websites as a viable marketing channel but then recovered by buying up Website design companies, many agencies are struggling too much this time around to repeat the process. So unless Sorrell and other holding company CEOs adjust their thinking beyond the economy, it seems likely digital agencies really will be in a better position to steal seasoned creatives, capture traditional accounts, and reshape the field.

Friday, December 11

Linking Emotions To Links: David Snyder

"Links are the product of what elicits an emotion from website owners, and the link builder that can tap these emotions is going to be able to manipulate the most important element in search rankings." — Dave Snyder, co-founder of Search & Social

When David Snyder, co-founder of Search & Social, a Web company focused on helping companies leverage the Internet, tied psychology to link giving, he seemed to understand the application of psychology as to why influential marketers would link to Invesp’s 100 Most Influential Internet Marketers.

The concept is simple enough. According to Snyder, Invesp is hoping to create content (a list in this case) that leverages the Internet marketer's pride, which in turn elicits the Internet marketer to link to the site on which they are being considered for inclusion. Ironically, these Internet marketers, when they do link to support themselves on Invesp's list, directly increase the perceived credibility and influence of the list.

Such tactics are not new. It was partly the basis for Technorati, the AdAge Power 150, and more recently Listorious. It also helped give a secondary push for several social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, and dozens of others that include ranking systems based on connections.

In some ways, it's tied to advice given out by too many social media experts — if you want links, link to other people; if you want comments, comment on other people's blogs; if you want to be "retweeted," retweet other people; if you want to be listed, list other people; if you want to be recognized as a leader in a particular field, pander to the perceived leaders.

The same can be said for the recent offerings in social media certifications. Several people who are attempting to cash in on the certificate program know that if enough of the right people buy into the program to give it a lift, then others will follow.

All of it points to an interesting component of social media and search. Quality, insight, or expertise are not always the defining factors in rank. Popularity tends to elevate popularity, companies pander to "influencers" and communication or marketing colleagues will comment where their comments will most likely be seen or, well, take your pick. (Don't misunderstand me. Many earn it.)

Where Snyder might be one degree off is in that "pride" is not the only emotion that lists and ranking systems elicit. Valeria Maltoni discovered that the psychology behind being included in a list covers a broad spectrum of emotions.

However, the results are the same. Lists tend to get noticed because it is in the self-interest of those listed to notice them and people cater to popular because it is in their self-interest to be as close to the source of popularity as possible. (Incidentally, this conversation topic has partly influenced an in-progress study and unrelated experiment for next year.)

Popularity topics aside, Snyder nails an important piece of the marketing equation.

Do you really want to know why Zhu Zhu Pets are popular this year? Why there are a range of emotions revolving around Tiger Woods? Or why CBS missed the mark on comedy?

Applying Snyder's model helps it make sense (minus the idea that "thoughts" are always part of the process). Simply put, marketers, advertisers and public relations professionals are in the business of creating messages or content that elicit a thought or emotional response in the hopes of converting those thoughts into action that results in a pre-defined objective.

Where many of them go wrong, however, is in either ignoring this part of the process, assuming influence over the media will apply the right context, or grossly miscalculating what thoughts and/or emotions will be tied to what they initiate.

Zhu Zhu Pets, for example, are hit toys not because of one "thought" but an entire array of emotions created by the wave of a hit product with limited supply as much as the humanizing customization (and originally low price point) associated with it. Different people arrive at the same action for different emotional reasons. In contrast, different people arrive at different conclusions about Tiger Woods based on different emotions as influenced by the context of how they view the situation. And, CBS missed the comedic mark once again because different people experienced the same emotion (disgust) when the network tried to find humor in linking pornography, children, and a well-defined icon of innocence.

Of course, these varied outcomes are also what makes communication situational and often unpredictable. Change any piece of the equation and the outcomes will be wildly different, online or offline.

Thursday, December 10

Perverting Ads: Burger King And CBS

Not to be completely upstaged by the recent perversion of Frosty The Snowman by CBS in the U.S., Burger King is trying to sell breakfast food in the United Kingdom with a bikini-clad "babe" singing in the shower.

Except, she's not much of a babe. She can't really sing. And the bikini top — decorated with eggs, burgers, or other toppings as decided upon by site visitors — won't make you hungry.

If the singing wasn't bad enough, visitors can win a date with her. Burger King teases their intent by offering up that "you never know, it just might be the start of something beautiful (and she might even sing for you)!"

Dubbed as the first "guilt-free showercam," Cow PR seems to be following in the footsteps of Crispin Porter & Bogusky in trying anything to sell products that just don't stand on their own. The message is loud and out of tune: if the food sucks, punt with a publicity stunt.

Low Brow Comedy, Sex, And Publicity Is A Recipe For Disaster.

Although the Burger King stunt is still one rung up from the gutter that CBS created by re-dubbing a vintage clip of Frosty so he talks about his “porn collection” while surrounded by crowds of smiling minors, the direction is the same. Too many marketers and advertisers are still struggling in their attempts to exploit consumers and force viral campaigns at the expense of the brand.

Sorry. It's just not funny. What might be funny?

Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, could talk about his porn collection. Or, perhaps, John Chidsey, CEO of Burger King, could sing in the shower every morning.

That's what it's all about, right? Both ads would easily go viral and generate a whopper of publicity. They still might be tasteless, but at least we could see the faces behind the marketing funds that make these debacles possible.

Wednesday, December 9

Changing Journalism: Reynolds School of Journalism

If anyone is still wondering, and a few people still are, the changes taking place in journalism today are as permanent as any that preceded it. The changes are not only taking place with publishers at a snail's pace, but also in higher education at an increasingly hastened pace.

Funded by an $8 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the Reynolds School of Journalism and Center for Advanced Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, is specifically designed to help students "navigate the revolution in journalism." Most of the grant will be used to rewire and re-cable the journalism building, which includes a robust server system that will replace analog TV and radio facilities and create a new multimedia newsroom.

"This is a transformational gift," Milton D. Glick, president of the university, said. "It means our students will be even more prepared to communicate on every platform--print, broadcast, the Internet, social media and whatever comes next."

To help maintain the new infrastructure, the school is also launching a campaign to raise a restricted fund of $1.6 million. The changes are not restricted to infrastructure, but critical thinking and skill sets. Students who enrolled in the school this year were asked to purchase their own video camcorders.

The blended approach is well suited for the school, which offers the only accredited journalism program in the state. Even when I attended as a student several years ago, it helped shape the foundation for an integrated approach to communication.

While the core of the program is journalism, various electives provide students an opportunity to place an emphasis in other communication fields, including broadcast, public relations, and advertising. While the requirements remain the same, several new core requirements are being introduced, including multimedia reporting and production.

We see these additions to be critical for students entering journalism and communication today as they will likely serve them much longer in a field that continues to evolve, with significant crossover between public relations, news media, social media, and advertising. And even if some students do not see why every core class is important to their area of interest (as someone who had an advertising emphasis, I didn't appreciate reporting until years later), all of them will become vital requirements in the next decade.

It's equally vital for current advertising, public relations professionals, and even journalists to consider this emergent structure. As students from school, as well as several other progressive universities, many of these graduates won't have the same restrictive thinking that many practicing professionals seem to be hindered by today.

They won't ask questions like "which silo ought to be in charge of social media?" Or "Should I emphasize writing over video production?" Or "How do I distinguish professional journalist and a blogger?" In an integrated, interactive, portable multimedia-driven world, those questions will become as obsolete as "How do I pitch a non-news story."

Tuesday, December 8

Being Run In Circles: Zhu Zhu Pets

Within hours after the GoodGuide, an environmental and social consumer advocacy company, issued a release that some of the hottest toys this season contained levels of antimony and chromium that exceed federal standards, the Internet lit up with with searches for Zhu Zhu Pet recall information.

Except, consumers couldn't find much credible information beyond opinion and speculation. There was no recall.

The truth was that Cepia LLC, the manufacturer of Zhu Zhu Pets, had met federal standards and stricter regulations overseas. And in response, the company immediately issued a statement that Mr. Squiggles and Zhu Zhu Pets are “absolutely safe and has passed the most rigorous testing in the toy industry for consumer health and safety.”

The statement went on to provide a detailed accounting of testing procedures, which include independent tests several times during production and again before the items are shipped from the factory. It also included CEO Russ Hornsby's personal assurances that as a father and toy maker with 35 years of experience in the toy industry, that the company not only strives to meet U.S. and European standards, but strives to exceed them.

However, even with the statement, it took two days before Zhu Zhu Pets would be exonerated, with the GoodGuide retracting its release after the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said the toy was in compliance. The discrepancy was in the testing methodology, with federal standards employing a soluble method and the GoodGuide using a surface-based method.

In one of the better accounts of the testing discrepancies, Jennifer Taggart, the founder of The Smart Mama, helped set the record straight. She points out that the U.S. standard is 60 ppm soluble antimony in paints and surface coatings used on children’s toys, not antimony as found with the Niton XRF analyzer used for testing surfaces. She goes on to conclude: "I call out greenwashing all the time. It goes both ways, you know?"

In an era of infinite information, inaccuracy spreads fast.

Even after the GoodGuide results were refuted, some news outlets still ran with the initial, erroneous release. Bloggers, unaware of the retraction, are still advising parents to think twice.

One suggested parents avoid the toy because antimony limits set today will likely be lowered tomorrow. Another suggested that because they are made in China, they are tied to impoverished and exploited people. And yet others doubted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission investigation and clearance, given that GoodGuide was once featured on Oprah and, supposedly, is conducting a more rigorous test (even though they are not).

In a summation of all the content, most opinions were wrong and most coverage, even by news outlets, were nothing more than a reactionary game of "he said, he said." Specifically, news outlets covered the allegation, the response, outside opinions, and eventual retraction with most never investing any time in researching the truth.

Antimony is not a random chemical as many inferred. While dangerous in concentrated doses, it is a metal used to meet other safety standards as a flame retardant. It is frequently added to children's clothing, toys, crib mattresses, aircraft, and automobile seat covers. It is also used in electronics, paints, rubber, ceramics, enamels, and some drugs. So while GoodGuide still maintains it is cause for concern in any amount, its presence does not mean the toys are unsafe.

Federal testing methods (soluble) consider how much of the substance could be removed by dermal, ingestion, or inhalation at 60 ppm. The GoodGuide testing methods do not. While the GoodGuide regretted the error, it hasn't come close to offering an apology to the company or consumers nor did its retraction statement mention the toys by name.

GoodGuide makes everyone run in circles for little or nothing.

The general predisposition of the public is that companies, for love of profit, are bad; consumer advocacy groups, despite being profitable, are good; and news organizations vet the facts. Sometimes, this is true. Other times, with increasingly regularity and in this case specifically, it's not.

However, with the adoption of infinite information as a model, things have changed. Here, the advocacy group sensationalized erred testing methods, which mainstream and social media helped propagate at the expense of what appears to be an honest toy manufacturer with the biggest hit of the season. The lesson here is that the quantity of information doesn't always lead to more truth but rather popular opinion regardless of the truth.

The lesson that has yet to be learned is how future public relations professionals will be taught to manage this information. By our count, most are too busy rushing to social media in the hopes of becoming client cheerleaders and influencer relationship brokers.

While Cepia LLC did a better job defending its product as safe than the GoodGuide did in in admitting it was wrong, the erred information outpaced accurate information via social media. Most news outlets have reported follow ups, but few have amended their original stories.

Incidentally, the Bakugan 7-in-1 Maxus Dragonoid and the Fisher Price Laugh & Learn Learning Farm were also included as hazardous in the original GoodGuide release, but escaped the same scrutiny.

Monday, December 7

Going Social: Inc. 500 Companies

The Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, released a new study that tracks social media usage among Inc. 500 companies. It has tracked social media adoption among Inc. 500 companies since 2007, when it noted the fastest-growing companies tended to adopt social media at a faster rate than Fortune 500 companies.

Highlights From Center for Marketing Research 2009 Study

• Social networking leads in adoption. Seventy-five percent of Inc. 500 companies are very familiar with social networking, which is up from 57 percent in 2008.

• Twitter, far and away, is among the most adopted social networking tools being adopted by Inc. 500 companies, with 75 percent saying that they are very familiar with it.

• Social media is mainstream. Forty-three percent of Inc. 500 companies consider social media important to their business, with 91 percent of Inc. 500 companies employing at least one tool in 2009.

• With the exception of Twitter, 87 percent of companies employing social media report that the tool they use has been successful for them. (Twitter returned an 82 percent success measure.) However, most companies seem to overemphasize the importance of hits and comments as successful measures.

• Blogging follows social networking, but remains well ahead of other social media tools, with 67 percent of Inc. 500 companies saying they are very familiar with blogging and 45 percent hosting at least one blog. Blogs were also among the top cited tools to be adopted by companies not currently engaged in social media.

• Message/bulletin boards, online video, podcasting, and wikis have all tapered off in interest, with less than 50 percent of Inc. 500 companies very familiar with the tools.

While adoption is high, execution is haphazard.

Despite the high adoption rate, most companies seem to be adopting social media without a communication strategy. While 87 percent use social media, only 70 percent monitor their brands, only 46 percent consider social media very important, and only 36 percent have a written employee policy. Less than 40 percent employ social media for any other communication, such as with vendors, suppliers, and partners.

Based on the study, it seems most Inc. 500 companies are adopting social media tools that are among the most reported about, with little regard to benchmarking, or establishing measures beyond reach. For the most part, Inc. 500 companies become involved in networks that enjoy the most media coverage, regardless of their audience. In contrast, more than half use social media to screen potential employees.

It is important to note that only 148 of the Inc. 500 companies participated. However, the participation rate is approximately the same as previous years, which suggests trending might be the most important aspect of the study. The full report is available online.

Earlier this year, the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, also released a benchmark review of Fortune 500 companies' blog adoption. It found 16 percent (81) of Fortune 500 companies hosted blogs, with 38 percent of those with blogs belonging to the Fortune 100.

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