Tuesday, August 31

Finding The Sweet Spot: The Copywriter's Kitchen

Yesterday, someone asked me how I decide to write about something after I decide to write about something. My immediate thought was to shrug it off, saying it's complicated. Because, well, outside of a classroom it is complicated.

Most copywriters and creative directors say the same thing, but with different words. Many have become skilled at making the answer sound cool and mysterious instead of aloof. Since I also wear the hat of an educator, I'm always looking for ways to communicate the process (even if some of it resides in the subconscious).

The stuff that doesn't reside in the subconscious is much like frosting on a cake. Right. Commercial writing, regardless of format, often involves taking some idea and then squishing it through various icing and piping templates. You need the right ingredients, whipped to the right consistency, and then applied with the right amount of pressure through piping and various templates. If you do it right, it sticks to the surface, looks beautiful, and keeps people coming back for more.

There are many filters; too many for this post. But more often than not, the decorative appeal of great communication begins with conversations that consumers will never hear. It's called client education, because they often have a say in the ingredients used, how long it's whipped, and how much pressure will be applied. Is it any wonder consumers see ugly ad messes?

Balancing Four Spheres Makes For Great Frosting.

Before I continue, I ought to qualify this just a bit. Sometimes clients are right, even though most creatives hate to admit it. But that aside, let's take a look at the initial communication process, which can be broken into four basic conversational zones.

What Clients Want Consumers To Know. Regardless how often clients talk about outcomes, most of them want consumers to know something regardless of the outcome. And, they believe that the more consumers know something, the better. For whatever reason, what they want consumers to know becomes a priority at some point.

What Clients Want Consumers To Do. Secondarily, there are outcomes. Ultimately, clients want consumers to rave about the ads, buy the product, and tell all their friends to buy it too. If at all possible, when those customers tell their friends, the client wants them to include what they want them to know.

What Consumers Want To Know. Consumers like to pretend they loathe advertising. In truth, they loathe bad communication, which unfortunately consists of most of it. The reason they say they hate it so much is that it seldom communicates whatever they want to know, which is usually how it is going to enhance their lives for a reasonable exchange rate.

What Consumers Need To Know. In addition to what consumers want to know, there is what they need to know (which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with what the client wants them to know). This can be tricky to convey, but can be summed up best as communication they will never ask for, but are glad they received after the fact.

The Sweet Spot For Commercial Communication.

There is a teeny tiny place in the middle of that one logic and three emotive spheres. It only occurs when everything is in harmony. And when that occurs, consumers respond much like the clients want them to. Everybody gets what they want.

Anything less than harmony and the entire process breaks down. And some of it doesn't even have anything to do with marketers or clients. Oversimplified, most messages break down when two conflicting spheres are overemphasized.

What The Client Wants Them To Know/Client Want Them To Do Conflict. Sure, every client says they want specific outcomes (sales) until they see a first draft. Immediately following receipt, they want it to be more aggressive, more informative, more brand-centric, more whatever, regardless of the outcome. In short, they are not content with selling chocolate frosting. They want consumers to know where beans came from, what the mixing process is, what temperature it cooks at, the nifty wrapper selection process, why the font was chosen for the name of the company, who sits on the board, etc. Whew.

What The Client Wants Then To Know/Consumer Wants To Know Conflict. Worse than the internal client conflict, what many clients want consumers to know has nothing to do with what the customer wants to know. So, as the client prattles on about the square footage of their factory, they never hear the consumer ask if it tastes yummy.

What The Client Wants Them To Do/Consumer Logic Conflict. Sometimes, the client might have the right message, but someone else has already won their hearts. In those cases, it doesn't matter if you have the best milk chocolate in the world. Even if they enjoy the message, they could be diehard dark chocolate fans.

What The Consumer Wants To Know/Consumers Logic Conflict. And sometimes, well outside the marketer's control, the consumer has internal conflicts over a purchase. That is just the way it is. For example, the consumer might love milk chocolate, but also know that too much isn't all that good for your teeth or waistline. The client knows it and the consumer knows it.

Imagine. After all this, assuming you do hit the sweet spot, the end result is frosting. On an educated guess, I surmise at least half of the frosting sucks before anyone considers how to apply it. At least half to three-quarters of the good frosting will still be spoiled during the application, whether or not the client has a decent product, service, delivery method, customer representatives, or operations plan. But those are different stories.

Monday, August 30

Changing Landscapes: Marketers Miss With Social

PEW Research
Last Friday, the Direct Marketing Association and Colloquy released a study that suggests most marketers are spending nearly twice as much to deepen customer loyalty as they do on other core social media marketing programs.

Specifically, the study says that marketers typically invest $88,000 on customer loyalty, $53,000 on brand awareness, and $30,000 on customer acquisition (comparatively). Interestingly enough, these customer loyalty programs do not include listening tools to track online conversations. (And, of those who do use those tools, most don't listen beyond searching for brand names.)

Marketers Who Don't Listen Waste Consumer Loyalty Investments.

If companies did listen, they might learn that something relatively amazing is happening within social networks. Also on Friday, Pew Internet Research summed it up nicely.

Social networking use among Internet users ages 50+ has nearly doubled, from 22 percent to 42 percent in the past year. Anyone following social media trends may expect it to double again. Social networking is well suited for any age.

What is especially interesting about this uptick is that half of all online adults, ages 50-64, and one quarter of all seniors, ages 65+, are members of Facebook and LinkedIn. On Twitter, their presence is changing the space too. Last year, 50+ accounted for one percent of all active Twitter members at any given time. This year, they represent six percent of the total active population.

Even more important than the shifts in demographics, marketers might be missing out on something else too. While some attempt to host a space without any interaction, there is a bigger picture to consider. Why are these people joining Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social networks?

The Top Three Reasons People Join Social Networks.

• Join to reconnect with people from their past.
• Join to seek out support from others with an ailment.
• Bridge the generational divide between family and friends.

Sure, a certain segment of this population will eventually find more ways to use their social networks. However, I can't help but wonder. How many organizations never consider doing something that fits with one of the three reasons people join?

Sunday, August 29

Adding Common Sense: Fresh Content Project

Fresh Content Project
For all the emerging expertise in social media and communication, there is an increasing shortage of one skill set. It's called common sense.

It must be in short supply, especially because many of my colleagues write about common sense all the time. And, no matter how much they write about common sense, people are still dazzled by it. Me too.

This week's fresh content picks all share some sound advice on the back of popular discussions, with their solutions all ringing true with common sense. Was Steven Slates really a working class hero? Do customers always use your company's name when they talk about you? Can monitoring really improve CRM? Can content farms replace journalists? Should we care about other people's petty judgements?

Hark! Common sense, I say. Here are some frightfully smart writers who offer periods to the end of everyone else's sentences.

Best Fresh Content In Review, Week of August 16

Steven Slater Is No Working Class Hero.
In the wake of Steven Slater's sliding escape from JetBlue after losing his cool with one of the airline's passengers, Andrew Weaver puts the incident into perspective. While everyone becomes overwhelmed by the bad behavior of others, Slater went further by inconveniencing everyone with his alleged display of runaway egoism. He didn't hurt the passengers as much as his employer, innocent bystanders, and anyone else who happened to be at the airport. As one of my friends point outs, he captured the essence of how many Americans feel right now, angry at everybody.

• Why TweetDeck Isn’t A Discussion Monitoring Strategy.
Everybody talks about building brand evangelists in social media circles (heck, me too, at times) and Jeremy Meyers says that it is all fine and good. However, social media experts who attempt to control the language of their new found brand evangelists are a step too far. More importantly, Meyers smartly points out that social media experts who are searching for brand names are only hearing part of the story. Most of the time, people don't include the brand name in their discussions. Common sense for us, but not common sense for most people.

• Understanding And Implementing Social CRM
Jason Falls recaps the mash up of "social CRM" and why some of these automated programs are falling short. CRM, if you don't know, stands for customer relationship management. It doesn't stand for monitoring what customers do. It's about developing a meaningful relationship with customers. It's one of several functions that step well ahead of "monitoring" services and requires an investment by people, not programs, in nurturing that relationship. While the tools might help improve your proficiency, don't expect them to replace people.

Content Farms And The Death of Remarkable Content
Basically, Lisa Barone cites the ill-conceived document that claims content farms are stealing journalists’ jobs and lowering content standards. There is some truth to that. Some folks have even been so bold as to offer our firm content for pennies on the dollar. The trade, of course, is content farm content might not be all it is cracked up to be. Repurposed prose doesn't consider the end user. It simply provides content that is then trumped up by fancy headlines and solid SEO backlinking. It's a game of bait and switch. Of course, content farm content is not sustainable.

Everyone Will Judge You (But No One Cares)
A few weeks ago, someone wrote an article that called for the death of "cool," saying that "cool" was always about what people liked and trying to catch up. I had to correct them. "Cool" originated from keeping one's cool in the face of judgement, whether it was spoken or not. Ergo, Steve McQueen didn't care what people thought of him. It was also a nice warmup to Julien Smith's post, which highlights various traits among great people who typically ignore the judgements of the otherwise mundane. His advice: be who you want to be (unless you'r representing someone else) and let all those other folks think what they want. Amen.

Friday, August 27

Finding Narcissists: This Post Is All About You

Is the narcissism of a Web page owner in a social networking community related to Web site activity, content, and perception by others? According to one recent study this appears to be the case. Or does it?

"We found that people who are narcissistic use Facebook in a self-promoting way that can be identified by others," Laura Buffardi, a doctoral student in psychology, was quoted by Physorg.com.

Buffardi co-authored the study with associate professor W. Keith Campbell at the University of Georgia. And at first blush, the abstract, published at the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, seems right on target. The deeper you read, however, the study outcomes deviate from prevailing views of narcissism.

How The Study Was Conducted.

1. Narcissistic personality self-reports were collected from Facebook Web page owners.
2. Their Web pages were coded for both objective and subjective content features.
3. Strangers viewed the Web pages and rated their impression of the owner on traits and narcissism.

There were several other steps, but these three present the core of the abstract. According to the abstract, it was partly motivated by the concern that "these Web sites offer a gateway for self-promotion via self-descriptions, vanity via photos, and large numbers of shallow relationships (friends are counted—sometimes reaching the thousands—and in some cases ranked), each of which is potentially linked to trait narcissism."

The general hypothesis was to find correlations between "real world" and online expression of narcissism as it relates to a higher number of social relationships (but shallower), self-promotion, self-presentation, and the perception of having a large number of Agentic (a perception that you make choices and impose those choices on the world) characteristics. Some discussion...

• Less self-absorbed people do not seem to be using the Internet for self-promotion to the degree narcissists do.
• The quantity of social interactions and number of relationships is indicative of the traits associated with narcissism.
• The choice of the main photo plays a significant role in the ability of strangers to identify narcissists.

However, the study also noted that real world narcissists are charming and generally make a good first impression whereas online communication seemed to bear out that narcissists' quotes and interactions were less entertaining. And secondly, real world narcissists are not any more attractive than non-narcissists, but strangers tended to rate attractive photos as more likely belonging to narcissists.

What's Missing From The Study?

There are several other factors that could be contributing to online behaviors associated with narcissism, many of which are promoted as social normalcy in such environments. These need to be considered alongside any psychological study.

• Popularity (number of social connections) has an overinflated value of importance.
• Photo selection, especially main photos, could correlate with social media experience.
• The quantity of interactions could also be more likely to correlate with experience.
• Social norms within subgroups often dictate some behavioral traits of individuals.
• Individuals are prone to update information and photos to benchmark personal challenges.
• There is a primary indication that social network behavior is greatly influenced by intent.

Specifically, on the last point, content creators have a tendency to share, interact, and attract more friends or followers, which could produce narcissistic quantifiers. Likewise, people working in communication that act as spokespeople may increase their visibility online regardless of personal "real world" leanings (e.g., I know several shy people who seem extroverted online). Conversely, some individuals may have no interest in personal self-promotion, but have been asked to supply such information by family and friends. The point being, it is extremely difficult to guess at intent.

Can narcissistic qualities be spotted online? Maybe, but the qualifiers to determine narcissism are likely to require observations beyond the owner's Facebook page. For example, someone who has an increasingly high rate of interaction may have a high level of interaction on other people's pages where they are more communal in nature.

Likewise, there seems to be too much emphasis placed on main photos. It makes me wonder whether the strangers rating these pages, after being instructed to look for narcissistic traits, skewed their reporting toward attractive and/or posed photos, assuming it was vanity. Photo selection could equally be any number of reasons, even self-consciousness.

Still, the overall construct of this research is fascinating. Social networking is very well suited for narcissists. Just keep in mind that narcissistic traits are more likely in line with those who believe they are "influencers," frequently promote the number of friends or followers, and force position themselves as an authority within groups.

These are just my initial impressions of this very interesting subject. I'm very interested in hearing different ideas.

Thursday, August 26

Lingering Aftershocks: Hewlett-Packard

Hewlett-Packard (HP) is still learning the hard way. In the immediate aftermath of a crisis, every decision made is weighed against the crisis. Every decision, including the acquisition of 3PAR.

Three weeks of being unwilling to match Dell’s $18 per share offer for 3PAR, HP re-entered with a $24 per share bid. The switch has some people wondering whether the change of heart is tied to HP's apparent need to prove that it is "business as usual."

Without Closure, Every Decision Becomes A Comparative.

You can hear the rumbling in the background. Even if the acquisition of 3PAR is lucrative for HP, the unwritten questions remain. What would Hurd do? And, more telling, are the board of directors pushing for the acquisition for public relations?

These questions might not be asked as often had HP been more aggressive in closing out the crisis as opposed to attempting to operation it out of the picture. Worse, they've spun up several new allegations and stories, some of which don't add up (hat tip: Ben Tremblay) while leaving plenty of questions unanswered.

No one can blame HP for insisting that they want to "look forward and not back," which basically means they intend to shrug off transparency. It also reinforces the idea that the universe doesn't understand negatives. Every time those words are uttered, it means the opposite for everyone else.

The evidence is all over the 3PAR discussions. HP has put itself in a position where winning or losing looks equally questionable. (Note, I'm not saying the acquisition is vital for HP or not.) If they don't see it through to the end, people will wonder if the acquisition about-face was public relations driven. And if they do win, they might ask the same thing.

The primary question people ought to be asking is how much is too much to pay for 3PAR. But, with the scandal still lingering in the background, the merger (win or lose) won't clear HP from the crisis it picked. What will it take? A new CEO who delivers gains for two quarters ought to do it. Their crisis communication should have this benchmark built in.

Finding The End Of A Crisis Is Harder Than Managing A Crisis.

Most crisis communication plans never consider the situational challenges that occur long after the immediate crisis has ended. One might even say that this is the caveat missing from the Toyota concept that all is forgotten after 70 days. While there is some truth to that, crisis communication planners need to have a realistic view of when to start that 70-day ticker.

In this case, closure didn't occur with the resignation of Hurd. (You can see it in the stock valuation.) Had he not resigned, the company could have started the ticker on the date of the harassment settlement. More importantly, companies have to be careful in how they make bold movements while still suffering from crisis aftershocks.

As long as the motivation is only to deliver shareholder value, it's easy to back bold moves. But if decisions are being made because there is something else to prove, then they've done more than lose the HP way. They've lost any semblance of purpose.

Wednesday, August 25

Taking Media Out Of Social Media: CitizenGulf

Citizen GulfIn Boston, it will take place at The Precinct Bar. In Houston, you can hook up at the Continental Club. In Santa Monica, it's the Sulkin Secant Gallery.

These locations and seventeen more across the United States have become the local connections for a national event to do one thing right. Hundreds of people are working together, online and offline, to raise funds for fishing families impacted by the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

While each event location varies in planned entertainment and environmental awareness, they all show solidarity in hosting gatherings loosely themed around a New Orleans-style event with live jazz, blues, or Zydeco music and speakers knowledgeable about the environmental impact. Most local events were coordinated by the Social Media Club chapters from coast to coast.

CitizenGulf National Day of Action

In addition to these 20 events, smaller unofficial fundraisers are taking place across the nation. And for people who are unable to attend, there are plenty of ways to help support area fishermen, including Bloggers Unite, where bloggers and other social media site owners can list their online contributions in building awareness.

You can help too. Check the event listings to find an event location near you and post a link on your Facebook page or send up a shout out on Twitter to let your friends know how they can make a difference. If they cannot attend, CitizenEffect is coordinating online donations for this nationwide effort.

There are more ways you can help. Take a look at the various Pepsi Refresh Gulf initiatives proposed by dozens of individuals and organizations. Vote for you favorites, including the Gulf Coast Benefit, which is directly tied to CitizenGulf National Day of Action. (Pepsi has pledged $1.3 million toward ideas that specifically benefit the Gulf Coast.) There are seven days left to vote as of Aug. 25.

CitizenGulf And Social Media.

CitizenGulf National Day of Action represents one of the best uses of social media, coordinating events online to host simultaneous activities across the country in an effect to raise funds for a tangible project that benefits people in need. You can learn more about the plight of fishermen's families at Liquid [Hip], an online review site that helped build early awareness after Geoff Livingston's inspired call for support.

Proceeds from online donations and event donations will be awarded to Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. This benefactor was chosen because it is deeply entrenched in supporting afflicted communities and well-suited to developing educational programs that benefit fishing families.

CitizenEffect chose the benefactor after traveling to the area and surveying residents. It made sense to choose the nonprofit best equipped to provide support and one that area residents readily supported as opposed to creating a duplicate program.

Likewise, CitizenEffect, along with its partners, has done something few event organizations do. Rather than "own" the event and attempt to drive people to a singular location or one-time contribution, CitizenGulf National Day of Action allows people to help in whatever way they wish. No action is too small or contribution overlooked, easily making it a best practice in effecting social change. They should be commended.

How about you? Do you have an extra 30 seconds today to help build awareness for this worthwhile cause? If you do, please send up a tweet, post, or shout out to your friends and family. I am almost certain others would do it for you if the roles were reversed. Good night and good luck. And thank you.

Tuesday, August 24

Applying Mechanics: Five Tips For Better Writing

Writing Mechanics
Last week, I wrote a post about crafting better content, which focused on prep work that takes place before writing content. The companion piece is this post that focuses a bit more on mechanics.

After all, great stories can capture reader interest, but it takes a practiced hand to keep them. One standard practice inside many major corporations that publish printed employee newsletters or magazines is the red test. Basically, editors ask a few readers to draw a line under the last paragraph they read in a story. In most cases, the average reader makes up their mind about a piece in three paragraphs, assuming the lead sentence is strong, and skips or skims the rest.

Are there exceptions? Yes. Great stories are read from the lead sentence to the last. And the reason they are is mechanics.

5 Mechanics For Better Writing.

The mechanics of writing are much more than error-free prose or good grammar. The technical craft of writing covers a wide range of subjects. Here are five that I often look for in determining how good a writer might be.

• Provides A Well-Organized Story, From Start To Finish.
The biggest challenge most writers have today is content organization. While various mediums require the content to be organized differently, many writers fall into a cross-medium standardization that doesn't work. You can see it in transitions, with hard, jarring breaks between ideas instead of thoughts that flow from one into the next. The second most missed consideration is the lead, but that deserves its own paragraph.

• Writes Effective Leads, Laced With Facts And Accuracy.
Lead sentences or paragraphs are everything (especially for short-syndicated blog posts). I could write several posts about lead sentences alone (and have). Great leads are more than simply telling readers what the story is about, especially when other people are covering the same story. Mass media is losing sight of this; most publishers are sounding the same. The mosque at Ground Zero is a great example. Some 1,600 magazines led with a waffled opinion from the President of the U.S. I can't imagine a more boring approach to the story. I wonder what some extremists might think.

• Covers The Subject Thoroughly, With An Identifiable Action.
Unless you have specific space constraints, there is no perfect formula for the structure of a blog post or ad copy. (Outdoor is a bit different.) Writers need to provide enough coverage of the subject that it makes sense to the person reading it. The rule of thumb is to answer more questions than you raise, without asking the reader to do their own research. Writing a blog post is a bit different in that writers can cheat. You can sum up a situation in a line and link to another article that provides a back story. In wrapping up a story, always consider a call to action of sorts, even if it only sums up what you hoped they got out of it.

• Looks For New And Interesting Ways To Tell A Story.
As someone who follows several hundred blogs, I can safely say formulaic posts have become readily abused. When every post consists of two lead-in paragraphs, five or ten breakout bullets, and one concluding thought, the brain gets bored. Sure, that approach might be a great search engine magnet online, but it kills subscriptions over time. Mix up the format now and again. Interesting stories tend to reveal whatever structure might work best, assuming the writer is taking the time to think the story through.

• Self-Edits Consistently, Working Toward Crisper Copy.
Time is always a challenge for me on this blog. I often write the posts first thing out of the box in the morning (even if I've been thinking them about for days or weeks). The downside to this approach is I don't always have time to do what I might do with commercial copy or on assignment. What's that? Rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. In my classes, I often tell students that there are very few great writers; most of us are great rewriters, reworking the copy as long as we can against the pressure of a deadline. If you never rewrite copy, chances are that your readers already know it.

These are among my top five mechanical considerations when I screen writers. It doesn't even matter what they are going to write. But more than that, I try to apply it to my own writing as well. Sometimes looking at a quick list like this can remind us why people bother to read the content. Case in point, while writing this post, I couldn't help but to think that last story I approved could have had a better lead. Thank goodness social media tends to be forgiving. What ought to have been the lead became the tease line across networks.

Monday, August 23

Countering Negativity: Flip The Thinking

A survey by Zillow helps put public sentiment about the economy in perspective. Homeowners are more pessimistic about future home values than they were in the last three quarters.

Specifically, 33 percent believe housing prices will fall further; 38 percent believe they have already reached bottom. Few people anticipate a real estate turnaround in the near term. Most believe any increase in home valuation could be more than one year away.

Worse, more homeowners are lining up to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to Zillow research, more than 4 million owners are ready to put their homes on the market in the next six months. If they do, increasing surplus could drive prices lower.

"Our forecast remains largely unchanged: We're in for an L-shaped recovery that will likely keep annualized home value appreciation very low for the next three to five years," said Dr. Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow. "Given this sentiment, we're surprised so many homeowners believe their market has already bottomed."

As recently as last March, the Obama administration had reworked its troubled $75 billion plan to prevent foreclosures. The idea was to give people a three-to-six-month break on their mortgage payments until new jobs materialized. Unfortunately, jobs didn't materialize, at least not long-term private jobs. The rush to push forth any plan didn't work.

Rethinking Customer Communication Can Improve Outcomes.

The question more organizations need to be asking is how they can help consumers as opposed to helping themselves. Sure, in a robust economy, traditional marketing works because it's based largely on either innovation (creating need) or out positioning the competitor (more common). In a down economy, organizations that aren't innovating need to find other ways to add value.

After all, it doesn't do any good to have the best marketing proposition for a product no one is buying. And marketing needs to consider this in their communication. What specifically are they offering consumers? But more importantly, what is it that consumers need that they might offer?

This falls right in line with some of the best performing Web sites. The Wall Street Journal offers information on business and finances. Lower My Bills provides a place to compare long distance services. Federal Money Retriever provides government grant advice. Facebook offers a popular way to stay connected with friends and family. Google is the most popular search engine for helping people find information they are looking for. And the list goes on.

What does your company's Web site do? If you're like most organizations, your site is not designed to do anything for the consumer. It's designed to help your organization. If it has a blog, it's probably written to sell products or share company news. If it has a social media presence, it's probably designed to attract new friends and followers. Perhaps it includes promotions and coupons, as if discounts somehow add value to something that has no value.

A 5-Second Solution Using Home Improvement As An Example.

Lowe's and Home Depot provide a great example. In the second quarter, Lowes posted an earnings increase of 9.6 percent. Home Depot rose 7 percent. Both have employed a business-as-usual marketing stance.

Home Depot will have a Labor Day sale with gas grills. Lowe's is asking people to imagine new appliances. Meanwhile, consumers are asking themselves whether they will be in the same home next year, negating the need for big home recreation items that won't move with them.

It's mostly the same on Facebook. Home Depot is telling people to do more (grill more, paint more, garden more). Lowe's was telling people to organize their life. Recently, however, Lowe's switched to "Back 2 Campus" ideas, except they aren't ideas as much as they are posts about one discounted product. The latter idea is close to being helpful, but falls short without a choice.

Imagine what might happen if Home Depot or Lowe's did more than justify cautious consumers are a reason for on par sales. If they did that, maybe they would focus on simple renovation projects that can lift homeowners' spirits or, even better, increase the resale value or home valuation of their homes.

Sunday, August 22

Considering Customers: Fresh Content Project

When you really stop to think about it, most customer communication is remarkably backwards. Most of it seems to run contrary to face-to-face communication. Sure, when customers call or are standing at a counter, customer service agents tend to ask questions. Did you find everything okay? Can I help you? What else can I do to make your stay with us better?

Take these same organizations online and all the questions evaporate. Suddenly, every customer contact becomes: let me tell you more about me, my product, my organization, and how great we are. The same holds true when the media calls. Questions are quickly answered with statements: let me tell you more about us, our policies, and what it is we want you to know.

It's weird. And I'm not the only who thinks so. All five of these posts carry a warning against making the conversation about "you" when it really ought to be about "them." Imagine what might happen if more of this communication focused on serving customers instead of the organization.

Best Fresh Content In Review, Week of August 2

• Emotions, Trust, and Control at the Heart of the Customer Experience.
Valeria Maltoni shares some insights on how service organizations can make customer experiences more positive by considering how CRM can create a customer advantage. Among the points: professional appearance, clear communication, active involvement, likability, willingness to take the high road, and follow up can all contribute to better customer service. But most importantly, she also reiterates that setting customer expectation is invaluable. It sets a foundation for stated excellence.

5 Reasons Why No One Is Reading Your Email Newsletter.
Sean D'Souza pulls out all the stops in pinpointing why many e-newsletters aren't read. His list of reasons include that the information isn't helpful, the voice isn't compelling, they don't tell any stories, they don't have a specific frequency, and they contain half-hearted calls to action. All of his points are true, with several that overlap. For example, many of the e-newsletters I receive talk mostly about themselves without any attempt to sell anything. No surprise, agency newsletters are among the worst. Most recap how great they are, demonstrate how little they understand about the tips they share, and never provide anyone a compelling reason to call them. After three issues like that, we mark them spam but the agency won't even know it.

Community Is About People And Interest, Not Technology And URLs.
Almost every ad agency, public relations firm, and social media consultant sells social on its ability to create a community. Then, they go out of their way to fill Web sites and social networks with people who never visit again. Why? They don't know anything about building an online community. Francois Gossieaux understands this fact well enough, reminding organizations that people are less interested in them than some common interest between them and the product or service. Exactly.

JetBlue – Right Things, Wrong Ways.
So, some flight attendant has a meltdown, berates a passenger, steals some beer, and jumps down an inflatable slide to exit the plane. For most companies, this is a no-brainer crisis communication scenario. Unfortunately, JetBlue isn't most companies. Its track record for crisis communication sucks. This time around, it turns the flight attendant into a folk hero and ends up eating crow. Mike Schaffer picks up two of the most obvious mistakes — waiting the next day to suspend the attendant and commenting that they "weren't going to comment." Ho hum.

Do Websites Still Matter?
Using an article by Pete Blackshaw, editor of Advertising Age Mobile, Shane Kinkennon addresses the growing trend that most organizations are using their Web sites as a home base and their outreach on rented space. Kinkennon reinforces the idea that the problem isn't the Web site as much as it is the communication most organizations put up on their Web sites. It's generally not engaging, participatory, or helpful beyond recapping product specs and providing contact information. It's a good point. Web sites will matter, assuming they do something other than talk exclusively about the organization.

Want to review more Fresh Content picks? Click on the Fresh Content label or join the Fresh Content Project on Facebook.

Friday, August 20

Redefining Leadership: What Do We Need?

There is a bit of a buzz about the Netflix vacation policy. It mirrors our vacation policy (with the caveat that all the work gets done) in that there is no policy.

But really, this simple discussion point is much bigger than all that. It goes all the way to the top of the leadership totem pole. Too many rules kill innovation.

Where Leadership Continues To Miss In Modern Times.

A few years ago, I read an article in the Harvard Business Review that focused on how many emerging leaders didn't necessarily have the leadership skills needed for the post they were pursuing. If I recall, the article pinpointed the lack of critical thinking skills as the problem. New leadership seems paralyzed by adversity. But it's not just new leadership. It's almost everybody.

It's almost everybody because there is propensity in many organizations to eliminate autonomy. In many cases, children are taught this all their lives. It's subtle, but it comes in the form of which books they are allowed to read (specific books based on specific skill levels), the structure of their day (get tasks done, earn free time), and how lessons are taught (rote memorization).

Basically, some of these kids are learning you need to do A to get to Z. Never mind that D takes you to Z more effectively. It doesn't fit the program, policy, or rules. It doesn't matter that you can start with any letter in the alphabet and get to Z. Someone has already eliminated all of the other letters as starting points. The place to start and the pace to learn is set in stone.

I've been fortunate to have several dozen great interns and employees over the years, but I have noticed some slippage in the desire for autonomy, even among the good ones. They are increasingly likely to wait for instructions. They want their work day planned out. And, if they complete the tick list, they want a reward. This used to perplex me, because I believe this video (hat tip: Angie Alaniz)...

Dan Pink's lively RSA animate is awesome. It suggests that if you give people autonomy, they excel. I believe he is right, but there is another dynamic that is undermining the concept. Some of the people coming up through the ranks now aren't used to autonomy at all. Some don't want it. And the reason they don't want it is because with autonomy comes accountability.

Sure, as Pink points out, people get very excited about autonomy in their personal lives. But what he misses is that being autonomous in our personal lives doesn't require all that much accountability. If you don't get it done or no one likes the YouTube video that was one month in the making, there are no consequences. If I don't work on my book today, there is no editor or publisher to follow up with me on the deadline. At least, not yet.

Ironically, if there are consequences (such as poor health choices or bad investments), there is an increased pressure to hold other people accountable, e.g., it's McDonald's fault if we eat too many burgers and the investment firm's fault if we pick the riskiest venture for the hope of a higher return. It's kind of weird, when you think about it. Where does this come from?

I'm starting to think it starts when kids enter school, especially public ones that have more rules and regulations than their private counterparts that tend to outperform. And this anti-autonomous training carries over into adulthood.

Guidelines Are Fine If They Don't Box Thinking In.

Modern organizations don't need "sandbox covenants." They need to teach people that it's okay play in the sand. That it's okay to make policy exceptions. That autonomy is okay with accountability. And that they ought to be prepared to stand up against regulations because of one so-called questionable decision.

Who knows? If our leadership had better decision making skills, they might even realize that working to end a recession and working to end a recession a certain way are two very different things. I won't hold my breath. Mostly, I ignore the recession. But the way I see it, the more more rules we make will keep us stuck in the muck for another two years or longer.

Thursday, August 19

Making Myths: Copywriter vs. Blogger Debate

Glenn Murray wrote a great link bait post entitled "Bloggers Versus Copywriters: 8 Reasons Why Bloggers Do It Better." Most bloggers who read Problogger loved it. But does it mesh?

1. Murray: They know what they’re writing about.
Murray asserts most copywriters write about different things every day and it's rare that they write about things they are actually interested in whereas bloggers always write about what they love.

Fact or Fiction? Mostly fiction. Good copywriters are passionate about what they write about. If they aren't passionate about it, they will be. The same holds true with bloggers. Some are passionate about the material, some aren't. Advertising has an equal chance to be informative, accurate, and helpful.

2. Murray: They have a more immediate and real incentive.
Murray asserts that copywriters write about other people's products. They are paid by the hour and not for results. Bloggers, on the other hand, get paid for selling their own stuff and thus are more result-focused.

Fact or Fiction? Total fiction. Show me a copywriter that isn't generating results and I'll show you a copywriter who is out of work. They are only as good as their last ad. Bloggers, on the other hand, will write some posts that draw hundreds and others that attract no one. It's expected.

3. Murray: They know their audience (better).
Murray says most copywriters have a vague knowledge of their audience, investing more time getting to know the product or service. Bloggers, he says, know the audience intimately.

Fact or Fiction? Total fiction. While there are some novice copywriters who work solely off creative briefs, the best copywriters invest plenty of time pouring over studies, surveys, field work, direct customer contact, competitor information, and their customer interaction, etc. Sometimes, they know more about the audience than the audience knows. Bloggers, on the other hand, know their readers and, specifically, what their readers tell them.

4. Murray: They’re not writing for clients.
Murray asserts that copywriters have to write for the client, because the client ultimately decides what ads will live and die. They are also subjected to grammar Nazis that cling to arbitrary rules. Bloggers can write any way they want, he says, as long as their readers like it.

Fact or Fiction? Fact. Unless the blogger is writing a client's blog or is deeply entrenched in pay-per-post models, they have a lot of license. Copywriters are appeasing multiple people — clients and audiences (which is better than PR people who have to write for clients, editors, journalists, and the audience). However, copywriters don't have to suck it all up. They make recommendations all the time. One of my favorite statements: We can do that, but we cannot promise any results.

5. Murray: They get immediate and real feedback.
Murray says that most copywriters know when clients are happy, but not the audience. Bloggers, on the other hand, have access to everything from analytics to comments.

Fact or Fiction? Fiction. The only copywriters that do not know whether or not their work is effective are copywriters who never ask. Sure, they may not care about a one-time pick-up job, but they will know plenty about any regular gig. Bloggers do have more information. However, their analytics are skewed. Their core readers will say every post is great, even when it's not.

6. Murray: They’re not writing for themselves.
Murray says copywriters see themselves as artists. They love to write for the sake of writing. Bloggers, on the other hand, only write as a means to an end.

Fact or Fiction? Partly fact. Copywriters, especially young ones, see themselves as artists. In fact, so much so that it conflicts with Murray's fourth point. Novices take it very personally when clients change copy. But bloggers, if they have editors or clients, do too. Give them 15 years. After that, they won't cry anymore. As far as pretentious writing? That totally depends on the client and what works with their audience. Only arrogant hack copywriters *need* to be profound; bloggers too.

7. Murray: They're not writing for their teachers.
Murray says that many copywriters are haunted by their English teachers whereas bloggers don't care. He also says copywriters tend to write with complexity despite readers wanting clarity.

Fact or Fiction? Total baloney. They are just as many complex blogs as there are clearly written ads. Heck, sometimes copywriters have space for five to seven words. Clarity is critical for any written medium and if a copywriter doesn't know it, they aren't working. Even on this blog, the only time I get muddled in complexity is when I don't have time to write less.

8. Murray: They follow best practices.
Murray wraps up by saying copywriters don't follow best practices. Bloggers do follow best practices, he says.

Fact or Fiction? Completely made up. Worst point ever. Murray ought to have stopped at seven. While he might be a decent copywriter, he doesn't seem to know what the guy in the other cubicle might be doing.

Final Thoughts On Copywriters Vs. Bloggers.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Copywriters and bloggers cannot be compared, not really. There are only good writers and bad writers (and everything in between). For anyone working in the field that really knows their stuff, they'll tell you that.

The only difference between copywriters and bloggers is the style in which they write. And, some of those copywriters and bloggers are blessed (me among them) with the ability to toggle back and forth between those styles (articles, news releases, etc.). Not all writers can do that and that's okay.

If I've learned anything over the years, it's that every style of writing can teach you to be a better writer. I've shared that with every single writing class I've ever taught. Don't discount any of it. It's all good stuff (especially poetry). After that, it's all in how you apply it and whether or not someone will buy it.

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Wednesday, August 18

Crafting Content: Five Tips For Better Content

According to Pingdom, there are approximately 234 million Websites (47 million are new) and 126 million blogs. This doesn't count the abundance of Facebook pages or other social network platforms that double as content creation sites.

Although some smart businesses don't care as much about total visitors as engaging prospects and customers, most of them are competing for the attention of some of the 1.8 billion people online (about 260 million in North America and 420 million in Europe). And there are many different tactics to do so.

While there are many possibilities, content remains a primary driver. Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, Live, Baidu, Wikipedia, Blogger, MSN, and Tencent all rely on content. Search engines help us organize global information (usually by ranking for better content). Social networks help us keep up to date on our network of friends (usually by making it easier to share content). Other platforms, like YouTube and Blogger, rely on content from contributors.

5 Tips For Crafting Better Content.

With an increasing number of daily messages from an increasing amount of sources, it stands to reason that the bar for better content will continue to be raised. So the question companies, businesses, public relations, publications, and bloggers need to ask is how to provide better content. Well, the first step isn't presentation as much as it is value identification. And here are five ways to add value...

Recognize and act quickly on story opportunities.
Tracking trends and tying current events often captures more interest than Website content long forgotten. Even stores and e-commerce sites need a steady stream of fresh surplus to keep people coming back. For most Websites and blogs, the easiest tie-in is "news," assuming they understand the definition of news. But news isn't the only opportunity. Topics that people are searching for tend to trend. Or, if you are up for a much more challenging prospect, you can deliver what they never thought to look for and love it when they find it.

Gather facts carefully and accurately.
The quickest way to build credibility online isn't always simply being friendly or being flashy with numbers. Credibility is built on the ability to deliver on promises. If you promise a compelling, interesting, educational, or humorous story, your ability to consistently deliver that content will keep people coming back. If you want to stand out among all the other opinions over the long term, be especially clear about what you know to be facts and what you know are your (or others') opinions.

Provide a variety of sources and ideas (at least one).
There are dozens of different topics where facts alone don't measure up. Generally, people base their decisions on a variety of perspectives. The better content usually provides some insight or understanding of any opposing viewpoints. The mosque near Ground Zero provides a solid example. Every day, I read polarized accounts of why it should be or should not be built there. These varied opinions almost never consider the opposing viewpoint, which diminishes the strength of the argument and turns dozens of posts into nothing more than "I also think" puff pieces. The diatribe on this issue is also why I never covered it.

Add in little known facts and/or fresh quotes.
Every day, journalists and bloggers, with increasing regularity, recap what other people write about. In some cases, it's verbatim. If you want your content to stand out from the pack of recaps, add new insights, perspectives, little known facts, or quotes that haven't been published or are long forgotten. The ability to provide a new perspective on a topic can mean the difference between rehashing or adding value to the content and conversations as opposed to adding to the noise.

Research and explore different story angles.
Sometimes, better content comes from repurposing intent. For example, dozens of people have used Website and blog numbers to demonstrate that online marketing and information is growing at an amazing pace (and to demonstrate why you need to increase your marketing online). But today, I'm using them to illustrate something different. As more people and organizations add to the noise, the bar for what constitutes valuable content is raised. Much in the same way, if I were to write about the mosque (which I'm not), it would be a piece about diatribe in order to drive the topic away from emotions and toward communication.

The takeaway here is simple. Before you concern yourself with techniques and tactics related to presentation, you have to be able to identify the right topics. For organizations and businesses, there is the additional burden that these topics must fall within the strategic communication plan. For individuals, it's simpler still. It's the fundamental difference between being an engaging writer and someone who will bore people away.

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Tuesday, August 17

Flushing Connections: Paul Carr

Bukowski"I’m hardly the first person to have had the idea: I’m going to shut down my Twitter account." — Paul Carr

Well, he didn't exactly shut it down. He locked it down. Locked down means that he only allows 10,000 people to follow him (sometimes allowing some people to follow him when the account dips below that number).

Carr has decided he isn't going to share as much with as many people anymore. Part of the reason, he says, is narcissism. Part of the reason is Ashton Kutcher. "The more we know, the less we want to know," he says about Kutcher.

I wouldn't know. I don't follow Kutcher. I never followed Carr either. I did download his free e-book from his Website. But I have no idea when I would read a PDF. Maybe I'll buy it for my Kindle app if the first few chapters seem interesting. Maybe I won't.

Mostly, I'm interested in his tact. According to Carr, his everyday life is less exciting and he doesn't want to bore people. Have you ever heard Christopher Moore speak? He's not John Cleese.

Writing can be like that. I'd wager ten bucks most people would never guess that many (maybe most) of the advertising awards I've picked up over the years (when I cared enough to enter) were for humorous commercials. I'm not surprised. This blog is mostly about serious stuff, ranging from consumer research and public relations tips to advertising techniques and marketing psychology. And most people don't know I take very little seriously because I don't present this content that way.

Every now and I again, I slip in a funny post. But mostly, I don't. Funny is hard work. So is keeping a post like this on track.

One Question You Ought To Ask If You're A Social Media Rock Star.

I've met a lot of interesting people in person over the years. Some of them regular people. Some of them politicians. Some of them business people. Some of them celebrities. And since I decided to integrate social media into the mix, I've met a whole lot more.

In meeting all these people, something has always stood out. There are some people who are really good people persons. They make relationships very easily. And then there are people who don't. Charles Bukowski might fit the bill. He had talent. People skills, not so much.

Maybe Carr has talent too. I don't know. Beyond a few posts on TechCrunch, I never read his stuff. But it does make me wonder what kind of social media rock star someone wants to be. Do some of them really have talent? Or are they very good cheerleaders? Or maybe they are just the life of the party? Or just people with good SEO skills? I dunno.

Specifically, I'm wondering if a social media rock star cancelled all their social network accounts tomorrow, would anyone read their blog (or buy their books if they've written any)? And if the answer is no, do they ever wonder what they are really good at?

Anyway, if this post doesn't seem to fit, don't worry about it. I'm sure you'll find something more useful tomorrow. Right now, I'm in Arizona facilitating a strategic session for a client and I did something I rarely do. I pre-wrote this exploratory with the intent to follow it up some time. Or if anyone is interested in picking up a half-baked riff, please be my guest.

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Monday, August 16

Looking For Miracles: Retailers

MallMost retailers are looking for an economic turnaround miracle. And as early back-to-school sales fizzled, many of them aren't sure if they should look for another traditional peak shopping season or push off hope for the holidays.

The bad news for retailers hit when monthly figures for July showed only modest growth over last year. Overall, retail sales increased 0.4 percent in July, and rose 5.9 percent over sales in July 2009. It's movement, but most fear that the movement isn't sustainable.

"Retailers continue to persevere in an uncertain economic environment, relying on cost controls rather than sales growth to maintain profitability," noted Sandy Kennedy, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association. "Retailers continue to deal with considerable market and regulatory uncertainty."

With the exception of automotive, retailers saw a decline in virtually every category. Department stores, clothing, furniture, and building materials were all slightly down. The most common reason for the sales slump is attributed to 14.6 million Americans remaining out of work.

Finding New Solutions In A Down Economy.

In days of old, most retailers relied on location. It was the reason that malls were mapped out all over the United States. As a retailer, you wanted to choose high traffic areas in order to capitalize on pedestrian traffic. The same was true for high traffic streets and urban centers. The people were already there. You only had to be there among them.

One change seems certain in this economy: people need a reason to visit beyond location. In a tightening economy, most consumers are trying to cut back on necessities in favor of occasional luxuries. So maybe, just maybe, retailers need to stop waiting for the people to show up and start trying to find them.

Proximity mailing and online market penetration are good starting points, but even those alone are not enough. You have to do something and that something has to be more than host a sale. Mini-events, new line launches, and educational series are smart starting points.

I'm not making this up. Two of the retailers we work with have seen the most success building connection-centric communities online (helping consumers meet each other) and complimentary or low cost events that people cannot find anywhere else. They don't have to be huge events. Some can be as simple as a local chef hosting a cooking demonstration or authors signing books.

As long as the marketing that accompanies these events includes traditional event listings (citywide), proximity mailers (store radius), and online (interest focused), more people are likely to attend than if the establishment simply handed out in-store flyers to a dwindling walk-in consumer base.

As for the freeze created by regulatory uncertainty? I don't blame retailers for being concerned. However, at some point, you have to forget what the emperor is doing and get down to the business of milking cows. The day to worry about future regulations is best saved for the day they happen. And the day to wait for a miraculous economic sales surge is, well, never.

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Sunday, August 15

Decoding Data: Fresh Content Project

Fresh Content ProjectSomething happened in between social media being considered a fad and full adoption. When companies asked people to prove social media worked, they obliged by providing any number of measures. It didn't matter what these measures were. Most of them include anything with numbers.

Never mind that numbers lie. It seemed to be what executives wanted to hear. All five of these fresh pick posts poke holes in most commonly accepted beliefs. If you think that the number of retweets conveys trust and/or transaction, that social media is different from strategic communication, that free platforms don't carry risk, that B2B and social media doesn't mix, or that Facebook is isolated from the Internet, then please read on.

Best Fresh Content In Review, Week of July 30

• New Experiments Question The Power of Social Proof On The Web.
While one of my passions has been to debunk "reach" on social networks, I'm not the only one conducting experiments. Dan Zarrella recently ran an experiment of sorts on Twitter. In one experiment, a post showing "0" tweets was clicked on more than one showing "776" tweets. In another, "15" tweets earned just as much traffic as "776" tweets. In yet another, he tested subscribers, discovering no significant difference between "0" and "62,172" subscribers. When you add it all up, the measures most marketers look at nowadays are extremely poor indicators of success.

7 Common Business Pitfalls that Impact Social Media Strategy.
Valeria Maltoni offers up seven excellent ideas to help keep social media programs on track. Rather than look at raw numbers, she suggests you consider everything much like you would any marketplace: changes in the competitive landscape, customer attrition rates, focus, vision, product problems, goal misalignments, and channel issues. The point, of course, is that any number of factors cold be outstripping your performance on a day-to-day basis. And often times, it might not even be what you think it might be.

The Sharecroppers Are Revolting.
Becoming too reliant on one network or platform without a backup plan is always a bad idea. Ike Pigott, with his flair for analogy, sized the issue up as something akin to sharecropping. There are many different forms of sharecropping, ranging from people who build their social presence on networks to those who utilize platforms with extensions (Typepad, Wordpress, etc.). He's right and, personally, I wish he would have been right years ago. I've personally lost three content assets: one when a network closed; one when a network shredded data; and one where YouTube didn't realize a production company owned the rights to its own clips.

The Case for Social Media in B2B.
Every time I read about B2B excuses for not engaging in social media, I always shake my head. First and foremost, I shake it because the people who tell me this read my blog (marketing/communication is B2B). But even more bothersome, I always envision some account executive telling a prospect in a restaurant that he can't talk business in a restaurant. In a much more eloquent fashion, Valeria Maltoni outlines her thoughts on B2B social media, after sharing projections that B2B online marketing spending could reach $54 million by 2014.

6 Facebook Search Engine & Data Visualization Tools.
After Lee Odden noted a significant increase in referring traffic from Facebook to Web pages over the past 6 months, he decided to pull together a list of six Facebook tools that could prove useful. All of them rely on Facebook search functions and range from fully functional to visually interesting without any other substance. One of the most interesting ones, in my opinion as well as Odden's opinion, is Touchgraph Facebook Browser. It reorganizes your friends and fans to display what might be mini niche networks on their own. It lined up mine perfectly. Check out the other ones too.

Want to review more Fresh Content picks? Click on the Fresh Content label or join the Fresh Content Project on Facebook.

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Friday, August 13

Stereotyping: One Bad Habit Social Media Needs To Dump

Earlier this week, I checked up on a Twitter chat session about blogging, but could only sit through one question. The question seemed innocent enough. Who do you target? Bloggers who are consumers or bloggers who are influencers?

The session quickly broke down into defining influence, with the most commonly accepted definition being a combination of "reach" (total followers) and "credibility" (engagement and RTs). Most people know how I feel about that definition. It fits in nicely with personal branding.

Here's a short answer so you don't have to read the personal branding post (unless you want to). Focusing on influence sucks. It can be summed up with an alternative title for this post: How I stopped chasing influence and became a better person.

Have Some Social Media Pros Taken To Trees Instead Of The Forest?

Before social networks, when blogs were the primary source of communication, the general likability of social media was that everyone had an equal voice regardless of reach. Sure, some people benefited from knowing a bit more about a subject, were better writers, or learned a few things about SEO. But let's not split hairs.

Everyone was at square one.

Most people involved in blogging were excited because they could present their ideas with an equal opportunity to be heard. They didn't need any reach, authority, or influence. They only needed to share their insights and, occasionally, they would capture more interest than major media networks. There was ample chaos, but chaos is kind of fun too.

Chaos is not very sustainable.

Most people think nature has a propensity toward chaos. It doesn't. It has a propensity toward organization. Even after the very messy Big Bang, entire universes and solar systems slowly began to organize themselves into pinwheels or other designs. The same thing happens in tiny ecosystems. Move ants to a new home and they will organize shortly after the initial confusion.

People are prone to stereotyping.

For people, part of our organizational structures include stereotyping. It is one of the things I've always found interesting about watching online behaviors. Many of the people who once celebrated the chaotic nature of the Web are now those trying to create a whole new hierarchy to replace experience, credentials, authority, and expertise.

The new hierarchy is kind of an unintentional scam with reach, interactions, associations, and time online as replacements. These things frequently creep into every communication decision being made on the Web — who to read, who to follow, and who to retweet or acknowledge. It's a load, and I don't mean Tootsie Rolls.

Kayne West Already Disproved All Those Influence Theories.

With a few simple clicks, Kayne West disproved everything some social media pros teach about influence.

He decided to only follow one kid named Steven Holmes. So overnight, everyone started following the kid. Even members of the media bombarded Holmes with questions and messages, hoping he would pass them along. West has since stopped following the kid after learning he unintentionally disrupted the kid's online life. (Or maybe Holmes deleted the account as he said he might. I didn't look and it doesn't matter to make this point.)

Holmes' temporary influence didn't have anything to do with reach, interactions, associations, time online, or even trust. It had to do with perceived access. It's something I already knew from covering a few tenuous fan movements and running campaigns for independent films, causes, and other such stuff. Influence can be created overnight and dumped just as easily.

In some ways, it has a negative value. And the reason I'm starting to think making decisions based on reach, interactions, associations, or time online is nothing more than a new form of stereotyping caused by ego, naivete, or scalability.

Skip The Stereotyping And Create Community.

When I was working on a social media campaign for an independent film, I connected with the fans of select cast members. I didn't care how many followers or friends or "influence" they had. I connected with them based on their enthusiasm and our mutual potential to become friends (most of them are still friends, one year later, by the way).

These two dozen or so people often received insider news first. It wasn't always intentional. Sometimes it was because they asked questions and my team answered them as quickly as possible. As a result, their "influence" grew, often at a faster rate than the film. (Doubly so when translation was involved.) And, after the campaign ended, most retained their "influence."

Of course they did. While it wasn't formal per se, the community we created placed them at the center, and not us. That concept was by design. I didn't want to become a quasi-celebrity on the back of my client. Influencers don't always operate that way.

While I don't think it's intentional, the only people propping up influence these days are those who stand to gain something from the illusion of being influential or are trying to create relationships based on efficiency because of social media scalability. Good for them. As a rule, however, I just don't see the value, but only because my team knows better.

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Thursday, August 12

Selling Offsite: Delta Airlines

Delta Ticket WindowWhen it comes to social media, Delta Airlines is ready to go all in. Today, it launched the industry's first social media 'Ticket Window,' which is a fancy way of saying you can now book tickets on the Delta Facebook page.

After the page slurps your Facebook profile data and is able to secure a private connection, a process that takes a considerable amount of time, you'll be able to book flights off Facebook. How long? I started this post while waiting and quit waiting after I finished this post. Clearly, there are some bugs to be worked out.

More importantly, however, the concept kicks dust on the rented land cautions. When there is money to be made, companies don't care.

Facebook is only the beginning. Delta plans to expand its Ticket Window to other sites, including online banner ads to allow full booking capabilities within the airline's advertisements and without requiring you to leave the site you are on. Delta also has plans to provide a fully functional app that does everything its Web site and the Ticket Window can do.

Who Cares? It's An Airline.

This idea is a leap forward, because despite shortcomings, the company is doing something few have thought of — it bypasses the quest to drive visitors somewhere other than where they are. It creates an opportunity to skip the sales funnel and move directly to outcomes.

It's hard to say whether people will book flights while reading an article on The New York Times or playing Farmville, but there is a non-linear quality that can't be ignored. It demonstrates just how far social media will transform not only how we communicate, but how we sell, shop, and share.

That is not to say everything is all roses for the airline industry. Most still struggle with their basic brand promiseds. Added-value on-time flights without additional charges and some assurances nobody is busting up your luggage on the tarmac. The actual flight experience is where some innovation needs to be made and Delta still has some communication rough spots.

Communication Rough Spots.

For as much investment in the concept of a mobile Ticket Window, it's difficult to find the official Delta page on Facebook. Enough so that I had to visit the site to get the Facebook page, which defeats the purpose. Add another problem.

Delta Facebook logoFor creative flair, Delta altered its logo on the Facebook page (pictured left). I didn't recognize it. Sure, the new look launched earlier in the week was a step up over what most airlines offer online. (Most have websites like their service. Lacking.) It's a nice, simplified and streamlined site. However, it didn't include a new logo.

Over time, I suppose people will be able to distinguish the Delta logo no matter how they fly it onto various communication pages. But in the interim, it's disruptive in a negative way. It also assumes the airline has a huge following of fans. Maybe they do. The press release sure made it sound like they are on par with Virgin, Southwest, and JetBlue.

"Our customers are spending more time online and are looking for new ways to connect with us," said Bob Kupbens, Delta's vice president - eCommerce. "We're now delivering technology where our customers are - from our own website to our Facebook page to Internet news sites and beyond."

Like many airlines, they seem a little bit stuck on themselves. It was also a little spooky that they decided to launch on Facebook because "We already know Facebook is the most used website by inflight WiFi users on more than 2,000 Delta flights every day."

Nitpicking aside, the real thrust here should send any marketer's or communicator's head spinning with ideas and applications. While making every ad a storefront could diminish branding applications, there is something to be said for being able to book flights, buy products, or even line up speakers with customized topics wherever your landing page happens to be.

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Wednesday, August 11

Inviting A PR Disaster: Hewlett-Packard

If there is any doubt that Hewlett-Packard implemented the wrong crisis communication strategy, look no further than abundant speculation. Speculation doesn't happen by accident. It happens when the public doesn't have any semblance of clear, authentic communication.

Stanford scholar and longtime Hewlett-Packard watcher Chuck House has come out strong for HP. He says chief executive Mark V. Hurd's resignation is tied to red herrings. The real reason, he says, is Hurd, nicknamed Mark Turd by ex-HPites who worked directly for him, was a thug.

The Los Angeles Times has taken a different tact. It reports that the HP board of directors ought not to flash a high standard of ethics too liberally. They cite how employees and top brass are treated differently when it comes to compensation, including an unusual formula to calculate the lump sum value of pensions that increased John H. Hammergren's pension from $11 million to $85 million.

James B. Stewart, a columnist for SmartMoney magazine, takes yet another approach on The Wall Street Journal, claiming that the HP board of directors didn't disclose enough. He writes that "by withholding information, the HP board is only prolonging the agony and feeding the press a juicy mystery." Perhaps not on the front end, but certainly now, HP has bought a crisis communication plan that caused more pain than if it would have not reacted to the threat of scandalous publicity.

Bad Crisis Communication Plans Magnify, Multiply, And Amplify.

There are more than 10,000 HP speculation stories across the globe today. And by the looks of things, it's only the tip of the iceberg.

Even if we just look at these three stories, they are all bad, even the pro-HP piece penned by House. It makes you wonder how powerless the board of directors was, waiting for a misstep to bring the "evil" executive down. The Los Angeles Times makes it look like the board is engaged in selective ethics. And the Stewart write-up makes it look like they are holding back, perhaps even lying.

Any time the crisis flies in more than several hundred directions, you know it's botched. Now, business reporters (people who are always looking for exciting stories because the daily stories aren't always so exciting) are looking at every angle. They are making mountains everywhere and they are doing it well beyond the scope of the initial crisis, which was a mole hill by comparison.

Situation Analysis Is Always The First Step In A Crisis.

If there were any internal politics as some suggest, they do not belong on the boardroom table at a meeting to discuss disclosure in order to avoid a public relations disaster. Handling a crisis can only have one objective: minimize damage.

So, if we take the board of directors' word that there is nothing more than what they disclosed — that Hurd was engaged in a non-sexual close relationship but fudged expense reports to hide the relationship to avoid the perception of an affair — then there is no other conclusion than they botched the plan.

In this scenario, a better course of action would have been to clear the chief executive's name, make him pay the $20,000 back (which becomes a personnel matter), manage any crisis in the event it becomes a crisis, and move on. After all, in this case, there was no evidence that Hurd's transgression (which isn't even clear as a transgression) would have been as big of a blip on the media radar. Even if it was, it seems the intent — if it was to avoid a crisis — has backfired exponentially.

This leaves us with two possible outcomes. Either HP created a crisis out of nothing or there is much more to the story.

I'm not big on crisis communication rules other than treating them as situational. I look at the classic tenets of crisis communication and see guidelines that help us ask the right questions given the readily available information we have.

However, if you do want a rule to hang on your shingle, I might suggest this one: in for a pinch, in for a pound. And once you are in for a pound, you'd better hope your only motivation was to articulate the crisis as authentically as possible.

Evaluating A Living Crisis Communication Situation.

Almost every time we evaluate a living crisis communication case study, someone inevitably says that it is too soon to conclude anything. In general, I agree with that assessment. For example, I would be doing you a disservice if I said this will kill HP.

I don't think it will (operative word is "think"). I buy HP products because the hardware is good. The ink, on the other hand, is very pricey. But I suppose it's possible.

However, public relations professionals and crisis communication managers ought to know by know that they have to draft crisis communication plans based on readily available information (not all information) and build in dozens of contingencies if and when that information turns out to be inaccurate. It happens all the time.

Sometimes the people in the field make a mistake. Sometimes public perception turns bad regardless of the facts. And sometimes, clients aren't always forthcoming. They might not lie, but I have heard "Oh, I probably should have told you ..." enough times that charging clients one dollar per utterance would have meant my retirement.

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