Friday, April 29

Misaligning Loyalty: Brand Loyal Or Penny Pincher?

how much for a funny hat?Loyalty programs are everywhere nowadays. Almost every company offers rewards and discounts to join Facebook pages and online communities. Airlines and book stores deliver perks to the people with the most miles on membership cards. Some social media experts even promise to promote their followers for the favor (reciprocal exchanges).

But did you ever consider that many loyalty programs aren't really about brand loyalty at all? In many cases, brands are actually undermining customer loyalty with perks and preferred discounts because the incentives they offer reinforce allegiances to discounts over product and service differentials. And in some cases, they disenfranchise brand loyalists all together.

How does it happen? As companies increase the amount of freebies and privileges, the customer becomes more loyal to the "perks" and less attached to the brand. At the same time, some companies undermine the value of customer satisfaction. Ergo, if the only thing keeping a customer returning to a store is a discount, then it's equally likely that they would visit someone else for a slightly better discount.

Worse, hastily planned programs can erode customers on both ends of the spectrum: customers who learn to expect more because of their status within the program (making it an entitlement instead of an incentive) and customers who expect less because they believe any specials are intertwined with sacrifice (quality, service, both).

In some cases, these discrepancies are exceedingly difficult to track. The warning signs occur in the frequency and quality of customer referrals. Either the customers stop referring people or they might refer the perks but not the product or service, per se. Some marketing managers will even hide the problem by suggesting increases in reward programs offered, creating a series of temporary lifts to hide the erosion of loyalty.

So how can you tell the if the loyalty program in place is seen as a positive part of the experience? It's not always easy to really know (short of temporarily withholding perks), but an executive might start by asking what kind of loyalty program they really have.

What is the basis of my loyalty program?

1. Bribery. The most common type of loyalty programs in play today are not loyalty programs at all. They are bribery programs, sometimes with a sense of urgency that demand immediate action. While the program creators will tell you that you have an increase in loyalty, the customers are equally loyal to the price point. (Even when I was working with car companies, customers became savvy enough to wait for seasonal events before visiting dealers. If a customer is willing to wait for a sale, they aren't necessarily loyal.)

2. Addiction. Airlines and hotel chains have been in the business of loyalty programs for some time. The irony is that many of them don't run loyalty programs as much as habits. There was an article in Psychology Todaythat recently pointed this out. The true objective of some of these programs is to make the customer pay more on a habitual basis in order to receive an "incentive" that they could have bought ten times over or chosen another company.

3. Reward. It might not seem so on the surface, but there is a huge chasm between rewards and bribes. And, as long as a company can maintain the distinction, a reward program can enhance customer loyalty. Rewards, especially those that aren't written as part of a purchase point, put the company in the position to exceed customer expectations. The feeling they create is more in line with a thank you and not necessarily a kick back.

Back in January, I read a post that lacked some substance but still managed to nail the concept. Guy Winch, Ph. D., wrote "Customer loyalty occurs because customers’ purchasing behaviors become driven by their feelings for the company, not vice versa." And then he went on to mention that trust (and I might add mutual respect) underpins customer loyalty.

crmThe general concept is to forge deep personal connections with customers. That way, they will always choose your company regardless of any other factor in the purchasing decision. If they are unwilling to do that, then they aren't loyal whatsoever.

So how did everything get so out of whack, making loyalty programs so pervasive? There are dozens of reasons, but asking the wrong questions is the most prominent. Specifically, some companies (or perhaps marketing experts) asked the customers if they would be more likely to purchase the product at a lower price or perk. You don't need a survey to tell you the result.

Anytime consumers are given the option of getting something they already buy for less, the answer is yes. The only time they might hesitate is if you weigh the question with consequences. And even then, without the consequences occurring at the time they are asked, consumers will pick the lower price or perk. However, you can also expect a fair amount will complain about those consequences even if it was spelled out to them on the front end.

Wednesday, April 27

Diversifying Digital: Social Is Not Enough

digital advertising is not enoughMuch like Web designers had to diversify after websites were widely adopted two decades ago, marketers are forecasting that digital marketing and social media will no longer be enough in the months ahead. At the same time, marketers expect traditional firms to demonstrate solid digital skill sets.

According to a new study conducted by RSW/US, which highlights survey responses from companies that include AT&T, Baxter, Volkswagen, Moen, and others, only 18 percent of these managers believe that their traditional full-service firms are digital savvy. Even more striking, this percentage is down not up from one year ago.

At the same time, 67 percent of marketers do not think digital firms can survive as digital "only" experts. Marketers believe that such firms will have to deliver more full-service offerings in order to remain relevant. The study findings suggest that marketers are not satisfied with working with large teams of specialists. They want to limit their outsourcing to one or two shops.

"Digital isn't enough and full service isn't full service without it," said one Fortune 500 executive we spoke with about the study. "Right now, marketers are being asked to work and meet with ten or twenty different specialty shops, ranging from public relations and social media to specialty marketers and advertising agencies. It's too expensive and time consuming."

The RSW/US study suggests that marketers are also tired of "the whole social media ownership 'fight' occurring over the past couple of years – with PR, social firms, and full-service firms, all vying for 'ownership' of the social space." Of all possible "owners," marketers see full-service firms as the best choice but only if they are willing to strategically manage the process rather than creating banners and buying online space.

"I’ve seen plenty of digital firms with great, hot creative — but they lack the accoutrements necessary to make it a complete experience," writes the study's author. "The more sophisticated marketers get in the digital space, the more they will demand smarter planning, better buys, more actionable analytics, and more strategic integration with other media in the mix."

There is a sense of urgency among marketers to see the change happen sooner than later. Only 55 percent say they would consider using their primary agency again if they were to put their account up for review. This compares to 68 percent in 2008. Worse, almost 20 percent said they would not rehire their current agency.

Top most common tips from marketers to agencies.

• Help clients understand how the finite budget fits into sales.
• Show clients better creative, and not just for the sake of creativity.
• Demonstrate that the agency understands the client and market.
• Be relevant by keeping pace with market trends instead of selling cookie cutter ideas.
• Stop sending junior people in to head important projects that require senior people.
• Present good quality ideas rather than a quantity of ideas for the client to pick from.
• Prove that the creative solutions will somehow fit with the company's strategy.
• Know the customers and have a better sense of what they might respond to.
• Try influencing the campaigns more and directing them less. Condescension is not welcome.
• Focus on the development of strategic campaigns instead of generic gimmicks and ideas.

Overwhelmingly, the most common concern that marketers have is that most agencies, they say, do not have a grasp of the company, company products, market segments, or customers. Interestingly enough, this understanding underscored almost every successful agency during the golden era of advertising.

Although not included in the study, the abandonment of strategic principles coincides with the emphasis on design, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, design is the most common characterization marketers give their agencies after full service, which accounts for about half of all firms. And, even inside full-service firms, design is dominant.

Unfortunately, most designers are promoted for creative prowess and not necessarily for their strategic skill sets. Still, marketers seem to sense that full-service agencies are more capable at developing these skills than digital "only" firms.

The full study from RSW/US is available for download and the organization recently added commentary in regard to the future of digital firms. RSW/US is a professional business development organization with the heart of an agency. It is located in Ohio.

Monday, April 25

Banking On Outlooks: Business Startups

Startup Outlook 2011According to new study released by Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), U.S.-based private and venture capital-backed tech companies are more optimistic in their near-term outlooks. More than 83 percent said they will be hiring this year, which is up 10 percent from last year.

The study focuses on a survey of 375 executives (80 percent at the C-level) of U.S.-based, early-stage companies in four high technology sectors: software/Internet (206 companies), hardware (63 companies), life sciences (83 companies), and clean tech (23 companies). The survey was conducted by a third-party market research firm, Koski Research, in February.

Key Findings From The Startup Outlook 2011.

• Nearly one in four companies (23 percent) exceeded their 2010 revenue targets, up significantly from 2009 (15 percent).

• Two in three executives say that business conditions in 2010 were better than they were the previous year, and three in four expect they will get even better in the coming 12 months.

• The vast majority of surveyed companies (83 percent) plan to hire in the coming year, up from 73 percent a year ago.

• 65 percent of respondents say business expansion and new markets are a top priority for them in 2011.

• The life science sector is more cautious in its outlook, citing regulatory/political issues as its primary challenges. Across all sectors, regulatory/political issues ranked as the third biggest challenge faced by startups.

• The top two concerns are the uncertainty created by our regulatory environment and the overall negative impact this environment is having on risk taking.

While the outlook is positive, government is slowing the recovery.

In order, the biggest challenges faced by these companies included equity financing, scaling operations for growth, and regulatory/political environment. While equity financing topped the list, the cause is also tied to government.

According to survey respondents, venture capital fundraising and investment levels are hindered by a tone set by the administration. While government claims that innovation is the key to success, it has also maintained a tone that suggests an aversion to risk. Unfortunately, innovation and risk go hand in hand.

"Probably my biggest concern (after equity financing) vis-a-vis operating as a startup in the U.S. is the stifling regulatory/tax environment here," said one survey respondent. "The sheer number of regulations and tax issues that have to be dealt with are staggering and the corporate (and related) taxes are highly punitive relative to other developed countries."

According to several respondents, the environment created by the government is driving more companies to move operations overseas. Along with regulatory issues, respondents said that they tend to hire slowly, given the high cost of compensation packages and the high cost of living in the U.S., along with the scarcity of qualified tech employees.

That doesn't mean executives are not bullish on America. On the contrary, only 13 percent would recommend their peers look elsewhere to start a company. The primary reason for their sentiment, respondents said, is because of the country's entrepreneurial spirit. In order to move beyond current challenges, SVB says the U.S. needs to adopt a more entrepreneurial environment.

Innovation remains the key in helping turn the U.S. economy around.

Among the suggestions included in its policy perspective, SVB suggests that the government promote risk taking and reward successes that result from it, remain open to disruptive innovation (even if it turns older companies upside down), provide a stable, predictable legal and business environment (without the back and forth of sweeping policy changes), and avoid excessive regulation. In addition, the government needs to reform education to ensure the country remains competitive in providing a strong pipeline of talent or allowing more qualified immigrants to bring their skills to America.

Other suggestions included government-sponsored R&D, tax credits for R&D, maintaining a sound system for protecting intellectual property rights, promote the flow of adequate risk capital into startups, and remove subsidies, regulations, and other market-distorting forces that favor incumbents.

These changes are critical for tech companies to help increase the speed of economic recovery, the study suggests. Otherwise, the U.S. will continue to discourage venture money, driving more technology away to India and China. The full report can be found here. It includes insights specific to each sector.

Friday, April 22

Making Commitments: Earth Day Network

One of the most valuable lessons I've ever learned (and shared) is the power of one. I learned this lesson when one advertising great pulled out a palm-sized bed of nails and laid his hand upon it much like art that originated in India. Nothing happened.

"See," he said. "When you have too many points, nothing sticks." It was a very effective visual lesson, and his only point.

Advertising works just like this old street-festival spectacle. It's all about weight distribution. If you place equal emphasis on thousands of points, there is too much information for anyone to make an informed decision. Focus on one point; it sticks.

How To Make One Billion Acts Of Green Stick.

As important as Earth Day can be, it has lost some of its impact as it became more commercialized. Nowadays, some of the biggest supporters are organizations that may or may not even be all that kind to the environment. It's hard to say so let's focus on something that works.

One idea that I really appreciated this year comes from the Earth Day Network. It is asking people to make one pledge, written and posted, that will ultimately help our planet.

Over 100 million people had already participated last week. People are sharing pledges to take small and large actions this year — not just for one day, but for a lifetime. And what I like so much about this idea is that those people who pledge the smallest contributions — one thing — are much more likely to stick with it.

A few highlights: One person pledged to turn off the tap when they brush their teeth and another person pledged to purchase more local food. Another person pledged to plant a garden at school and yet another pledged to change their lightbulbs for more energy conservation. One person pledged to turn off the shower when they shampoo and another pledged to install dual toilet flows.

Sure, there are bigger pledges. But I like the small ones because they are one-time reachable goals that are much more likely to stick. And, even if it doesn't seem like a lot, one billon of those actions (even 100 million) add up to a significant impact.

The Earth Day Network also goes a long way in making suggestions, broken down into categories that include green schools and education, advocacy, energy, transportation, sustainable development, conservation and biodiversity, recycling and waste, and water. People can also join pledges that other people have already created.

It's the power of one point. It's the power of one personal action. And it's magnified by the number of people who participate.

Wednesday, April 20

Advertising Dud: Why Great Creative Fails

Eastpack Ad
I have nothing against Eastpack. They started in the 1960s to make duffel bags and knapsacks for the armed forces. Twenty years later, the founder's son noticed that students were using military daypacks as book bags. So they started a new line for students.

They are a tough bag. They even come with a 30-year warranty (except those with item-specific warranties), which is how they came up with the tagline "Built To Resist." That's your background.

Imagine being a copywriter assigned to the account. You have a lot going for you. Military tie-in. Check. Retro cool. Check. Modern designs. Check. Unique selling point. Check. There is no question. If James Dean needed a backpack, this would be it.

So what do you do? Throw all that out the window and rip off an unrelated 1980s video game, changing out the bricks for students who hurl themselves off buildings. They don't even bother to land on the backpacks that are among the toughest in the industry. It's kind of sad.

Sure, there is some pixel art appeal lurking somewhere behind the scenes, but I seriously doubt people are contemplating the unseen connection. Instead, the newest ad campaign from Eastpack is a great example of how more and more advertisers think they need to draw attention to themselves instead of the products they peddle.

Will anyone even remember the brand? The copywriter might remember. But for the company, this is par for the course. They have produced dozens of advertisements where the creative is the hero and the product just an extra.

"Successful advertising sells the product without drawing attention to itself, it rivets the consumer's attention on the product." — David Ogilvy

Look, there is no doubt that the ads approved by Eastpack are an exercise in great creative. But great creative is more art than advertising. The difference is in what happens afterward. Art is designed to elicit an emotional response. Advertising is designed to make you want to purchase (or least know more about) a particular product.

A couple of years ago, Retin Art asked How do you feel about advertising? And in response, penned a post that captures how most people feel. We love it. And we hate it.

Too many advertising professionals are getting too smart for their own good. They want our attention but then never do anything with it once they get it. And that's why great creative doesn't really belong in advertising. It fails so badly that more people would rather read a product review. (Hat tip: copyranter.)

Monday, April 18

Rethinking Education: Immersion, Part 3 of 3

GlobeThere are probably several hundred issues that could be pulled out of the recent protests in Wisconsin. But out of them all, the most important one remains largely neglected. The education system is broken. And we collectively broke it.

The reason I say we collectively broke it is that the entire issue is more complex than most people know. For all of the debate in Wisconsin — bankrupting government vs. workers' rights — few people dug deeper than the symptoms to identify the problem.

If they did, some people might have raised an eyebrow to learn that the largest teachers' union in that state also owns the health insurance company that public schools contract. They will learn about it soon enough. I see a bigger problem.

The education system is overwhelmingly complex and inefficient.

The debate ought to have never been about teachers and their salaries. The formula is too complex. It's not like other salaries.

Roughly speaking, average teacher salaries are $45-55k for 180 days of work* (as opposed to 240 days in the private sector) with disproportionate benefits of about $30k and tremendous job security (very difficult to let poor performers go) but this is also offset by paltry starting salaries (some as low as $25k), greater education requirements, shrinking autonomy, and personal investments that many teachers make for their classrooms.

What strikes me as more interesting is that teacher salaries and benefits only account for 30-35 percent of the entire education budget whereas the professional-private sector invests closer to 40-45 percent of its revenue in payroll and benefits. Health care is even higher, with 50 to 55 percent of its revenue in payroll and benefits. (Some sectors are lower too; quick service can be as low as 20 percent.)

nevadaIn Nevada, I know that the Clark County School District reports that 65 percent of its funding goes to salaries and 21 percent to benefits (which seems to indicate that less than half of the salary allotments go to teachers), which leaves 12 percent for services and supplies. Yet, if only about 30-35 percent of the entire budget goes to teachers, then they only account for about 35 percent (or less) of the entire salary budget. The question to ask is who else receives salaries.

In many cases, administrators make two to three times the amount that teachers do. In other words, the bulk of the salary spending doesn't go to teachers, but rather the people who administer the teachers. The irony is that any time there are cuts to the budget, the people most likely to face cuts are the teachers themselves.

*As someone who teaches, I can attest to the fact that good teachers work unpaid on most weekends. And it is not uncommon to continue researching education materials during the summer for the following year.

The agenda needs to be less on adults and more on kids.

When I helped open a private school in Las Vegas, the philosophy was to place an emphasis on the child's education. While I do not know if it has held up since then, I do know that it was the answer to every question related to the school. From which textbooks to purchase (with teacher-driven input) to how many microscopes they needed in the science lab, it always came back to "everything thing we do is dictated by the educational needs of the children. Period."

Most decisions made by the public school system are not based on this. They are based on school board directives, including which books are useful. They are based on how much union dues can be collected. They are based on a disconnect between teachers and the public over what constitutes fair salaries (and fair benefits). They are based on seniority over performance in all but six states.

At the same time, test scores are ridiculously poor. The dropout rates are unacceptable. And the students, from most surveys, are bored and disengaged with their overall studies (only one country ranks higher in terms of bored students than the U.S.). I even raise an eyebrow when my son shares how his education is invested — rallies featuring McDonald's, rule refreshers as to why students aren't allowed to shake hands, career quizzes pointing to jobs that may be gone in ten years, etc.

A student-first ideology makes sense because it removes all the burdens from the education system. It also increases teacher support because teachers are the biggest student assets. Great teachers will have an impact regardless of any other tools (whether tech or textbooks).

However, in order to move forward, school districts will need to consider modular tools, including smart boards and tablets for students — even if that means a certain percentage of parents have to purchase them much like parents are asked to purchase school supplies or uniforms or any number of other items kids need for school (with sponsor opportunities for certain income brackets). Tablets would reduce some of the costs associated with other materials and make books more accessible to the students.

But I would hold off on too many tech investments. School districts have a tendency to put tech ahead of the students. If the overall education system isn't working, then it doesn't matter what tools you have at your disposal. And, the overall plan isn't working.

Three considerations for an overall plan.

From what I've been told, school districts tend to remove autonomy from teachers in the classroom. (In my personal experience, the best teachers complained about administrative directives whereas the worst teachers supported it. Weird, I know.) To be effective, school districts could be changed with mapping out expectations (what the kids need to learn by the end of the year) but the teachers need to develop plans that are designed to get the students there and then beyond the mark.

Teacher Autonomy. Teachers need autonomy — even from some textbooks — because many of the books are wrong. (Last summer, we invested in a tutor who promptly untaught our son inferior methods in math.) This places a greater burden on the teacher, but if more funding could be allocated for performance-based raises, they might be more willing to invest.

Transitional Teaching. Another shortfall in education is the lack of transitional planning. The administrative function of assigning kids to their teachers in the following year needs to take place before the conclusion of the school year. This would provide the new teacher or teachers the opportunity to assign material for students to prepare with over the summer.

Student Expectations. The expectation for every student ought to be college, with the higher marks set for college entrance as opposed to a high school criteria. Learning vocations instead of pursuing college entrance ought not be a consideration until the eleventh grade. The reason is simple enough. Many trades are not looking for secondary education; even the greatest percentage of manufacturing jobs in America are classified as highly skilled.

I've mentioned the need for immersive education in the first part of this series. I use the technique too. While I consider every class custom, some structural elements are the same — an introduction that ties in a current event, coverage of common errors from the last assignment, theory related to the subject, case studies related to the subject, execution tips related to the subject, and then an assignment and optional reading based on the subject. Students also rewrite whatever assignment is returned to them.

students firstApplied to math, after covering common errors from the last assignment, I might include the history of an equation, examples of why an equation is used, basic instruction on how to use it, in-class practice and corrections, and then some inventive homework to ensure they can master it. They might also receive an additional assignment based on what they missed with the first. Having not taught math, math teachers are probably best equipped to decide if it would work for them.

I suspect they would need more time than the allotted 50 minutes. But then again, in Nevada, some students have seven 40-minute classes, effectively reducing the teaching time to 30 minutes or less, not counting roll. That needs to change. Education requires more than snack-sized offerings. Expecting students to benefit from seven classes in one day is just a symptom of a struggling system.

Friday, April 15

Filling Voids: A Company Content Takeover?

Shel Holtz, ABC, principal of Holtz Communication + Technology, wrote a post that touches on a topic area that I wanted to see more companies embrace several years ago. The Internet makes it possible to become your own media company — providing honest, credible, and valuable feature content around your products.

His post, Business-produced content could fill the sharable-content gap created by paywalls takes a slightly different spin that he sees it as a solution to the growing trend among news publishers to put up pay walls. I agree with the concept in part, but then there is the other side of the coin. Companies are not enough to supplant true news coverage.

The Future Media Crisis Will Be A Mile Deep.

Last week, my Writing For Public Relations class was treated to an hour with Bruce Spotleson, group publisher for Greenspun Media. Spotleson has been kind enough to grace the class ever since I started teaching it. He even remarked that he could use it to mark the passage of time.

And this year, he shed some light on the state of news media. Specifically, what news media is shedding cannot be easily replaced. We're losing dedicated investigative reporters and senior writers who tackle the most complex issues, those who aren't so easily replaced by special interest citizen journalists and snack-sized entertainment features. (Investigative reporting is the most expensive proposition for any newspaper or news magazine, paying senior writers to spend weeks on one story.)

Looking at some of the reporting on the more complex issues in recent years, I'd go one step further and say we've all but lost most of them. And even the few who remain tend to do little more than report on two polarized talking heads or slant stories toward whatever politicized position their audience has embraced. The truth doesn't bubble up to the surface so much.

Even the most recent economic crisis is just now being understood. CNBC recently reported the findings of a two-year bipartisan probe that concluded conflicts of interest, excessive risk-taking, and failures of government oversight triggered the financial crisis (hat tip: Lewis Green). Both Republicans and Democrats agreed, citing problems that existed well before 2003.

The Story That The Media Largely Missed.

In fact, in 2003, the Bush administration tried to take some steps to correct such problems as they pertained to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But any progress being made to stop the problems was stalled then by Chris Dodd, chairman of the Senate banking committee. Dodd had allegedly been one of several dozen politicians who received special loans. He wasn't alone either. If you read Fact Check, everyone was to blame.

But this post isn't meant to explore the political wrangling that led to the financial crisis. It's an example of how times were already changing. The news media, by in large, was already out to lunch and asleep at the wheel. Instead of critical and objective reporting, the shrinking percentage of people reading newspapers were spoon-fed sensationalism — things that attract eyeballs.

In 2003, for example, the invasion of Iraq captured headlines. So did the shuttle disaster. So did the Laci Peterson story. So did SARS. So did a lot of stories with all of them important but with the emphasis on immediacy. What wasn't covered were our long-term simmering stories — the economy, housing market, or education. All of which would have required objective interests poring over research for weeks and months.

If they weren't being covered almost ten years ago, it seems highly unlikely they will be covered in the future. Or, for a more local example, Spotleson mentioned how local newspapers used to be the watchdogs over all sectors within the community like police departments and other government bodies. And when no one covers them, bad things usually happen.

Businesses Are Good At Reporting Wants; News Media At Reporting Needs.

Holtz is right that businesses can step up their own media outreach efforts and become publishers around their special interest areas, especially if they are sensitive to what consumers want and are reasonably objective in their presentation without filling the Internet with big brochures that get updated daily. Consumer-centric content is more valuable. Instead of talking about how great the company is, better content tells people how to get more greatness out of a product.

At the same time, communicators might want to remain steadfast in convincing news media outlets that there is a void that needs to be filled. Investigative information is too valuable to find behind a pay wall (because we generally don't want to hear it).

To take care of this niche, what we really need is for news media outlets to elevate their advertising rates to pay for objective reporting. And if the reporting is not objective, then at least they can ask the tough questions. All they need to do to recapture some of their old ad rates is deliver content that draws an audience because it is valuable (and not cheap entertainment). In contrast, putting up pay walls for content that doesn't measure up (The Daily doesn't measure up) only drives the audience away.

Wednesday, April 13

Targeting Influencers: Dear PR Pro, There Is No Spoon

no spoon, naddaOne of the hardest lessons for many public relations professionals to grasp comes right out of the Matrix. There is no spoon. There is no campaign.

"It is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself." — Potential

It took reading Kary Delaria's PR’s Biggest Mistake When Working With Influencers to fully appreciate it. She rightly suggests too many public relations practitioners approach influencer outreach like media relations instead of community relations.

She's moving in the right direction. And yet, I cannot apply it to anything I've ever worked on in social media, even if they are clearly better than what most public relations professionals want to do in social media. Let's step back.

Specifically, some public relations professionals want people, especially influencers, to push their content to a mass of people who will hopefully visit the destination and perform an action — like a page, subscribe to a reader, purchase a product, or whatever. Most public relations professionals think that by reaching out to influencers, they can increase the mass.

But social media doesn't really work that way, which is the gist of what Delaria was trying to point out. However, overlaying a community relations approach might be scoffed at too, even if it is only because the public relations practitioner abuses it.

"It is not the influencer that bends, it is only yourself."

1. Define goal, content and context. Not exactly. A worthwhile social media approach does consider goals, content, and context as Delaria suggests. But the goals, content, and context should never be bent to the influencers.

It needs to stay true to the community or audience you want to reach. If you can prove yourself worthwhile to a community or attract your own, influencers will be attracted to what you are doing anyway. In fact, they are just as interested in your community as you are (if you have one) — because if they ignore things within their sphere, they won't be influencers for long.

2. Test the theory and the outcome. According to Delaria, panelist David Binkowski suggested that if you had a running influencer campaign, you might run a test on the pool of influencers and then thin the list. But I might suggest that if you are running an influencer test, you're already losing mutual leverage.

As soon as you start testing them, then you've already put yourself outside the sphere where the so-called influencers are and outside any community filled with the people you want to reach. That doesn't make sense at all. You might as well brand "agenda" on your forehead.

3. Manage the community? I'm all for online community managers managing a community from a functional perspective. Someone has to run the advertisements, remove the spam, and provide very loose guidelines for the community to follow (very loose).

But I've grown very weary of community managers who try to manage the people who visit. For very much the same reason above, anytime you take planned actions to "influence" people within a sphere, you've cast yourself as someone outside it.

"It is not people who bend, it is only yourself."

Think of it this way instead. Hopefully if you are representing a company online, you have more than a passing interest or paycheck in the balance. It's probably best for you to like, even better if you love, whatever you are representing online.

If you are passionate about the subject, you already have a common interest with the people you might connect with online, whether or not they are influencers. Thus, they are not people to "target" as much as they are people you get to know.

As for campaigns in general, don't think of them in the traditional sense. They are simply part of whatever you bring to the table. If you have the insider information, unique perspective on a topic, clever idea for entertainment, or some other worthwhile contribution, you are just as much of an influencer as anybody.

The only difference between you and them is that they've probably been at it longer, got lucky one day, or never bothered to implement tactics that position you outside the community that interests you. In other words, there is no spoon.

Monday, April 11

Rethinking Education: Immersion, Part 2 of 3

Yesterday, I received some thank you notes from students in an intermediate class, ranging from third to fifth grade. I had made a modest donation to fulfill a DonorsChoose project request for a phonics program because the students haven't mastered reading and writing.

The pictures alone tell the story. While my own daughter, age 4, is learning to spell and recognize simple words, these children are struggling to the do the same. Imagine that for a moment. They're in third grade to fifth grade.

Sure, it's very likely some of these children are new immigrants (not all of them are), placed at a grade level based on age. But sooner or later, they will be combined into standardized classrooms to either fail or command so much attention from a teacher that the entire classroom will struggle with rudimentary skills so slower classmates can catch up.

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." — William Butler Yeats

I've never met a kindergartener, first grader, or second grader who is disinterested in school. So when does it happen, exactly?

If you believe Waiting For Superman, it happens sometime in the fourth grade. Personally, I think it happens well before the fourth grade — the foundation is laid as early as the first grade when teachers begin to assign labels for success.

Thank youThe problems with the education system merely manifest in the fourth grade, when testing begins and the children start to exhibit whatever predestined labels have been attached to them. This child is an overachiever; this child is an under performer — with most of those labels being assigned for very little reason other then their willingness to conform to an environment or their socio-economic background.

What's especially odd, however, is that students aren't as aware of their socio-economic background when they enter school as the teachers who educate them. They are also less aware of other identifiers too. Skin color makes little difference to them. Religious preference doesn't enter playtime conversations. Role modeling is mostly non-existent, at least among new peers.

For the most part, any pressures they face pale in comparison to those Ruby Bridges Hall faced as the first black American to go to an all-white school in New Orleans. She graduated and became a travel agent. Obviously, she wasn't deficient or predestined to fail despite her circumstances.

At yet, here in Nevada, we continually hear that socio-economics has driven the state to have the worst high-school dropout rate in the nation. Most studies suggest that low-income families are the primary driver. Others claim Nevada's poor performance is merely a matter of how the numbers are crunched, saying that the state's rates suffer from poorly performing students who move here. Others say it is because not enough is being invested in education.

The excuses don't seem to account for the trends tracked by America's Promise Alliance. That organization noted that the number of high schools in Nevada deemed “dropout factories” rose from eight in 2002 to 34 in 2008, with the increase representing nearly 54,000 students. During that time, the state's graduation rate fell from 72 percent to 51 percent. Population growth has also since slowed, especially during the recession.

"Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school." — Albert Einstein

The problem, here, in part has nothing much to do with anything politicians talk about. The problem is centered around one of three discussion points —  scarcity of resources, socio-economic issues, politicizing the classrooms. Simply put, the state fails because either the state or select school districts invent reasons to fail and then pass those reasons on to the students.

StudentOr, to match the excuses with common language — it's a lack of funds, it's the parents' fault, and it's the students' fault. Seriously? Our children are being told they will fail because success isn't in the budget, their parents are poor or are single parent households, and because they or their classmates come from other disadvantaged school systems (or countries).

I don't believe it, any of it. Nevada students fail because they are given every reason to fail. Since I went to school in Nevada, there has been a dramatic shift to improve grades and educational scores by encouraging all of the children to shoot for the minimum standards.

But as any teacher ought to know, when you tell students to shoot for the base minimum, they won't all measure up to that bar. If you want them to succeed, the expectation is no less than 100 percent or more, while reinforcing than anything but doesn't constitute failure. Students shooting for higher marks, even when they falter, hit 80 percent or better regardless of funding, socio-economics, or preassigned excuses.

"If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." — Andy McIntyre

Some people tell me that my experience as a teacher is tainted because I work with students who have elected to be there. (If that were true, all college students would earn As in every subject.) I humbly disagree. The challenge is greater because the education system has already failed many of them, given their lack of mastery of the English language.

We have no privileges in this class. I don't have any special monetary funding to get them where they need to be (I lose money teaching); there was even one year that everyone had to wear coats because the heater in the room was broken. The students come from every socio-economic background (unemployed to financially successful). They are ethnically diverse, with some speaking English as a second language. They have varied education backgrounds (high school dropouts to master's degrees).

But in my class, there are also no excuses, labels, or unrealistic expectations.

And every year, it only takes one or two assignments for the students to learn that I cut no breaks. The class average on the first assignment is in the 60s (high school level writing or less); the average on the last assignment is in the 80s (better than the writing provided by an average working professional). This is done in ten weeks (about 16-18 hours, plus 16-18 hours of homework).

My expectations are simple. Regardless of where they start, they will be better writers by the time the class ends if they do every assignment (and rewrites after the assignment). At minimum, they will be able to write one standard news release without common errors by the end of the session. But they really learn more than that, more than many working professionals.

That is not to say some don't drop. I lose one for every ten. But then again, they have an entire life of baggage by the time they come here. In contrast, every kindergartener, first grader, or second grader that I've ever met wants an education.

So why I support programs and individual projects at DonorsChoose.

Thank youI supported the literacy program by the aforementioned teacher to give them another educational tool and help the kids overcome the stigma. You see, those students are in a special class, with a 50-50 shot of drawing a teacher who cares or a teacher who collects a paycheck.

Obviously, they have the former, given she is seeking outside help. So, by funding their educational needs, I would like to think that I sent a message to the students and the teacher that the ROI on learning to read is worth it. They seem to based on the thank you notes.

Other than that, I don't care where they came from because they are not disadvantaged in my eyes. They all have the potential to excel, assuming the expectations are high enough and the system allows them.

But isn't it the same with any job? Most new employees want to excel too, until their employer or supervisor proves to them otherwise. Yeats might have been talking about education, but his idea really applies to everything. At least I think so.

Friday, April 8

Catching Creativity: The Art Of Fearlessness

Art by Jenna Becker
"There are significant moments in everyday life. That's what you ought to write about." — Raymond Carver

While most of the lessons I teach have to do with marketing, advertising, public relations, and social media, they're still akin to greater aspirations in miniaturized chunks of content, sometimes with a client or employer standing over your shoulders. In short, it's commissioned work. The kind of work that great artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat might dump a bowl of cereal on your head for even asking.

But that is the challenge for people who pursue commercial work. You have to have a head for business and the heart of an artist.

Those that don't appreciate it, never really excel in communication-based activities. Fear holds them back. Social learning theory frequently touches on it. Psychologists who subscribe to this thinking are quick to remind people that anxiety is often associated with certain situations and learning.

For example, a little girl who is punished by her parents every times she rebels will eventually associate punishment with assertive behavior. The punishment doesn't have to be physical or painful. Emotional punishment can cause the same symptoms. Or, perhaps nowadays, anxiety creeps in because most people are too busy to give their children enough praise and accolades (let alone teachers).

Either way, these early lessons taint people who want to enter the profession. Even seasoned communicators and graphic artists exhibit it going into presentations. They are either afraid their work won't measure up or they feel apprehension if they don't receive praise. Frankly, they ought not worry about either.

Shedding The Fear To Become A Better Communicator.

Art by Jenna BeckerMy daughter is only four years old and has been producing some striking artwork for the better part of a year. The work is better than some adults "think" they could ever do. I don't really believe that is the case, even if my daughter does have some natural talent. The primary difference is something else entirely. They have fear in their hearts. She does not.

If you are like most people, you probably started learning "fear" around the fourth grade. That seems to be the case today. Teachers and administrators are wound up so tightly over testing and what it means for their school that their anxiety is passed on to the kids. Although important, they place so much weight on testing that it is difficult for kids not to feel anxious.

This social learning will carry on with them for the better part of 12 or more years. And by the time a student reaches me, they become plenty anxious. And, honestly, the work suffers for it. Even some professionals I know will tell you how much they second guess putting up posts or sharing other activities because they are "afraid" how people might react.

Commercial work is a bit different in that you have to be able to include some presets — client mandatories, market research, and audience acceptance. But when in doubt, professionals can always craft two versions — the one the client wants to see and the one they see in their hearts. They might do it too, if not for the fear they carry around with them.

How does it apply to the average communication professional? Simple enough, I think. About 80 percent of the best ideas are scrubbed from advertising, marketing, and social media because they are never shown. The number is a guess, but I suspect it's not too far from the truth.

I used to try to answer the frequently asked question "how do you convince a client to do X?" with some semblance of an answer — show them the work, show them the research, pick and choose your battles, ask them to let you test it somewhere off to the side. But lately, I scrap all that advice and ask a question instead. Have you talked to them about it?

Art by Jenna BeckerA surprisingly high percentage of professionals never share what they would like to do with an account. They are too afraid to broach the subject, too afraid they won't be listened to, and too afraid their idea will be rejected, or worse, that they'll be held accountable and fired. Seriously? If any of that were true, with the exception of one, you're probably working in the wrong shop anyway.

The exception, of course, is if you are too afraid of not receiving praise for your work. If that's true, you're probably playing in the wrong field. As soon as you start shooting for the status quo — the stuff that always generates X amount of traffic to a site — you've already lost the heart of an artist that makes even being a commercial hack somewhat redeeming.

Give it some thought over the weekend. If you could do even one thing to make whatever project you're working on — a blog, advertisement, campaign — even a little better, what would it be? Start with that, even if it's not expected. What's the worst that can happen? Someone will say no? So what? Confidence comes from within. And you knew it well enough when you were four.

Wednesday, April 6

Mixing Messages: Dov Charney, American Apparel

Dov Charney
Some say American Apparel CEO and majority stockholder Dov Charney rarely grants interviews (it's really just the opposite). But still, in reading the latest interviews he granted to Counselor magazine, one of six B-to-B magazines published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, it's easy to understand why some people wish he wouldn't grant interviews.

"First of all, the announcement about us possibly seeking bankruptcy protection is something we did as an obligation to shareholders to explain that it's a possibility, however remote," said Charney, who founded American Apparel. "In reality, to say that the company is unstable is not accurate."

The company, which was recently embroiled in alleged sexual abuse, announced it may pursue bankruptcy after 2010 left it with a loss of $86 million. But then, in an amazing reversal, Charney told the trade publication the exact opposite.

“There’s no chance this industry has to worry about me, or American Apparel, leaving,” Charney told Counselor. “I’ve been producing and selling T-shirts in this industry for more than 20 years and I’m not going anywhere."

The article goes on to reveal a very real and unadulterated glimpse of what some people would call extreme egotism and others would call superior customer dedication. Primarily, Charney used the interview to excuse his purchase of inflated cotton prices in order to meet manufacturing demands. The company owes $121.5 million in debt to Lion Capital and Bank of America.

The company's rise to become a clothing manufacturing brand occurred in less than eight years. But for the last three years, the company has walked from one crisis into another and then another.

In 2008, there was the accusation that Charney instructed an employee to pad inventory numbers. In 2009, there was the lawsuit with Woody Allen. Also in 2009, Charney was forced to lay off 1,600 undocumented workers (about one-fifth of his L.A. employees). In 2010, he received a letter from the NYSE for failing to comply with the rules amidst other investigations. And, during much of this time, he continually turned up the heat in his advertising, making American Apparel the most pornographic in the business. (The ad shown is painfully tame compared to the hand-drawn nude girls removing underwear, bottomless models, and nip slips.)

In some cases, Charney documents his own controversies. He even shared his letter to the undocumented workers that he was forced to lay off. In much the same way, he is working to use all the controversy as an opportunity to launch a new line of denim.

But that is the way it is with Charney. Even New York Fashion, which did better than most, struggles to get ahead of all the spin associated with the CEO of American Apparel. It seems to be all spin with him, 24-7, 365.

A little bit charismatic and a whole lot controversial?

Any other company would have sacked months ago, but American Apparel keeps forging ahead. Ever wonder why? In creating a brand, he chooses horns over halos but denies the existence of horns much like he says sl*t is not a derogatory term as much as a badge of honor.

Translated, he says "I choose to win in ways that offend you, but refuse to accept it's offensive. Change your beliefs." Or, in other words, "This duck you see on my head really isn't a duck. And by the way, you ought to get one." Or in yet other words, "Just because we said we might file bankruptcy doesn't mean we seriously considered it. We say all sorts of things and you choose to listen to the wrong ones."

And there you have it. On the charismatic side, Charney is seen as one of the few manufacturers able to keep his footing as an American clothing manufacturer not afraid to embrace controversy. On the controversial side (aside from the issues he confronts), Charney represents someone who will exploit anyone, including himself, and anything to achieve his mission.

But sooner or later, exponentially raising the ante on controversial publicity reaches a carrying capacity. And when that happens, the whole thing explodes or, perhaps worse, people begin to tune it out. Publicity whore, who?

So while Charney says that bankruptcy isn't an option because the company makes $10 million per week, the company would still need 15 weeks with no expenses to meets its debt obligations. It seems unlikely even Charney can spin the four weeks that some banks have given him into 15 weeks let alone the 52 weeks of sunshine that he really needs.

In sum, the story reads like a modern day Heart of Darkness. Case study ahead. What do you think?

Monday, April 4

Rethinking Education: Immersion, Part 1 of 3

One of several striking moments in the film Waiting For Superman was its explanation that our education system was designed to create a workforce consisting of a 40-60 percent split between professionals and skilled workers. In 1950, it made sense.

At the time, 34 percent of all jobs in the United States was in manufacturing. People who weren't employed in manufacturing, much like today, sought out jobs in the service sector, which paid slightly less and was more likely to include part-time employment. But by 2002, things had changed. The manufacturing percentage had shrunk to 13 percent. And in 2009, it shrunk again to 9.25 percent.

But even more striking is that of the manufacturing positions that remain, many are skewing toward highly skilled manufacturing jobs, which require 2-year associate's degrees or even 4-year degrees. Of course, some of those would-be positions are sometimes moved overseas too.

A few years ago, for example, SunPower, one of the country's largest makers of solar panels, created 5,000 high-skilled manufacturing jobs that ended up in the Philippines. Tax packages, lower wages, and a better trained workforce were cited as the reasons.

The two-fold labor dilemma in the United States.

This is at the heart of the education dilemma in the United States, without much blame being cast on anyone. The U.S. is not producing enough of an educated workforce to meet the demands of its own needs. Case in point: the U.S. now ranks 20th in reading literacy, 18th in math literacy, and 14th in science. But it also ranks second in number of students who find it boring.

In a shrinking world, where so much of the world participates and competes in a global economy (mug manufacturers and some small book publishers outsource the work for less), the U.S. will eventually have to face one of two choices — continue to allow education to erode and hope it can continue to create service positions or refocus its efforts on creating a workforce that can meet its highly skilled manufacturing, technological, and science needs.

if we don't, most studies seem to suggest that the country will continue to have unemployment problems — it is priced too high for low skilled manufacturing and the workforce isn't educated enough for highly skilled manufacturing. That could mean as many as 30 percent of high school graduates (and dropouts) won't be able to find suitable employment. That leaves two choices: entitlement programs or crime.

So how do we fix it? Many people say they have solutions, but many of these solutions pinpoint singular problems. For example, some say we need more oversight or better teachers or better parents or even better students. Few people, it seems, focus on the more important aspect of education — education itself. Except, of course, the students themselves.

If it doesn't seem obvious, the answers these students provide all point to one singular challenge — they are disengaged. Everything else in their lives and what is happening in the world today is more engaging than the education they receive.

At the same time, immersive education doesn't only have to rely on technology as the video suggests. But it does touch on one of the primary changes to public education that needs to be embraced as early as the fourth grade, if not sooner. Students need to be engaged.

The contrast between a disengaged and immersive educational track.

Fourth grade students are frequently given random one-page stories, followed by questions about what they just read. They are introduced to random mathematical theories (often with an introduction using approximations) without any explanation of where it came from or how it might be applied. They are given a steady stream of spelling words, but most of them are only studied for for short-term memorization. And none of what they learn seems to apply to anything they might need to know in the future.

Is there a better way? I think so. Enough so that I'll devote the next two Mondays to exploring the topic (for starters).

But some of it is fairly simple. If you took a room of fourth graders and gave them an historical context about Egypt and then introduced them to building pyramids (mathematics), asked them to draw maps tracking the expansion of an empire (geography), suggested they code the lyrics of a song using hieroglyphics (language), invited them to draw pictographs (art), and then told them to make up their own story from the point of view of a king or slave (critical thinking and storytelling) ... how do you think they might feel about the education then?

My son felt pretty good when I used this lesson plan to teach him. But that wasn't in the fourth grade. He was in preschool.

Special thanks to Ruthie for bringing this video to my attention. It's an excellent refresher for reality.

Friday, April 1

Interviewing Influencers: Bronx Zoo's Cobra

Nobody saw it coming, but the Bronx Zoo's cobra has become an overnight sensation on Twitter. The cobra had quickly slithered up the influencer rankings, beating out best-selling authors, politicians, and social media experts in just a few hours. The cobra has attracted 150,000 followers after 50 tweets.

Currently with a Klout score of 73 and climbing, the snake is credited by the influencer measurement algorithm as "knowing what's trending and earning respect from your network." The cobra has even had conversations with celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and city officials like Mayor Mike Bloomberg. The Huffington Post reports that the snake is already earning endorsement deals. SKYY Vodka offered the snake a $10,000 appearance fee.

How did the snake do it? Social media experts want to know! So we met with the snake earlier in the week to find the magic.

Ten Questions With A Social Media Snake.

Q: How does it feel to be an overnight sensation and social media influencer?
A: Listen, let me tell you about influence. I've been an influencer much longer than I've been online. Who was Aesop fixated on when he wrote fables? Me. Who did the ancient Aztecs worship as the master of life? Me. Who convinced Adam and Eve to eat the apple? Me again. I've always been an influencer. I didn't need Twitter to make me one. If it wasn't for me, all you humans would still be running around in fig leaves and ignorant bliss.

Q: Are you going to take the SKYY Vodka endorsement deal?
A: I'm holding out for the big money. Maxim writer Justin Halpern held out after launching $#*! My Dad Says on Twitter and look what happened: Someone published his crappy book and CBS bought the television rights. None of it was funny. Call the show $#*! My Snake Says and I'd rule CBS.

Q: If you did get a television deal, who would play you?
A: Wow. That would be a real toss up. Mom always liked William H. Macy but I'm thinking Gary Busey. Busey is off the hook! But hey, I'm not picky. Brian Solis works. He knows the terms and is short enough to fit in a pocket.

Q: Are there any social media experts you wouldn't want on the show?
A: Chris Brogan would never ever get on the show. What's up with all that Human Business crap? I'm a snake, baby. In your face! And Jason Falls? What's wrong with snake oil? And those clowns at Twitter who almost suspended me? I stick my tongue out at you.

Q: They almost suspended you? How did that make you feel?
A: How do you think I would feel? I'm an invertebrate. It's bad enough that Twitter hasn't approved my verified account, but they bent over backwards to give one to Charlie Sheen. We all know why too. He's not going places, but I am. So what if texting requires thumbs? I'll overcome. I haven't had a break like this since St. Patrick kicked me out of Ireland. He can kiss my asp.

KloutQ: Do you think the influence algorithm programmers are worried about your rise?
A: Does a snake charmer play a pungi? Of course they are. Joe Fernandez probably panicked when I hit a Klout score of 73, beating almost all of those social media influencers who pimp his site. Brands don't mind. They are already sending me perks. Seriously. Starbucks went nuts when I told people not to talk to me until I had my morning coffee.

Q: Do you have any long-term aspirations?
A: I'm still taking it all in. The way I see it, I have two options. I could be a mega celebrity or I could shoot for even something bigger. 2012 isn't all that far away and the campaign banners look great. America could use a president from the Bronx. I'd represent New York. Just don't believe those rumors that I was born in Egypt. I was born in Hawaii. Duh.

Q: Do you have any advice for young social media pros?
A: Yeah, um, right. Be authentic and retweet other influencers. So what if it's a contradiction. Most social media tips are just made up. Boo, hiss. Seriously, has anybody even heard of any of those people? No. Does everybody know the cobra? Yes.

Q: What has been the worst thing someone has said about you so far?
A: Zoo Director Jim Breheny said I was pencil thin. To that I say he should stop making it about him. This is about me, Jim, and nobody is pencil thin on this side of the glass. All the same, after TIME talked to him they asked for my side of the story. I kept telling them ... there is no "side." I AM the story!

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?
A: Yeah, I'm not really Justin Bieber. I was pulling TIME's leg when I said that. I don't get to pull legs a whole lot. Oh, but I have a message for Ford. You still owe me a royalty check. Fix me up before I tell the guys at Hyundai to let the Elantra Cobra roll.

Happy April Fool's Day. And thanks to all those mentioned for being good sports, especially the Bronx Zoo's cobra that was never interviewed. Special thanks to Geoff Livingston and Ike Pigott for introducing the cobra. For other April Fool's advice, see Revealing Secrets: The "Mushup Strategy," Preparing For Stardom: How To Slam Dunk Social Media, and Releasing SME 14.0, Beta: Copywrite, Ink..

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