Monday, May 30

Reflecting On: Memorial Day

Unkown SoldierThe brave die never, though they sleep in dust: Their courage nerves a thousand living men. — Minot J. Savage

How easy it is at times for a nation to forget the significance of Memorial Day amidst the banner of a long weekend and start of summer. And yet, it is for the very losses of these fallen heroes, the men and women of the U.S. military, that we can fan the flames of our barbecues, host backyard parties, and relax in lazy wonderment by the sides of our pools.

"Sometimes she alone ensures our sacrifices, so others may live free, will never be forgotten." — Richard Becker for American War Mothers

There is a band that hails from the United Kingdom that recently wrote a song that captures the awe (and regret) that a soldier who runs away from a battle might feel about his fallen comrades. The song is The Cowardly Soldier's Lament, from a West country folk band Rocketeer. Enjoy and then remember.

If nothing else, at 3 p.m. today, please pause for a few minutes during the National Moment of Remembrance. Or perhaps, if you can find the time, listen to Taps, which was reworked as we know it today after the Seven Days battles at Harrison's Landing (near Richmond). It revised an order ceremony, which called for the signal to extinguish lights.

But again, such suggestions are only the least that one can do. There are dozens of organizations that rely on everyday citizens for funding and support. Just a few of them include America's Fallen Heroes Fund, American Fallen Soldiers Project, American Gold Star Mothers, Fallen Heroes Project, and Flowers For Heroes. Please take a minute to visit them as well as consider the meaning behind the original day.

Memorial Day was first enacted as Decoration Day by formerly enslaved African-Americans to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War. Later, Southern states held their own Memorial Days, helping rebind the common cause of this country. And in 1866 in Mississippi, Decoration Day commemorated both the Union and Confederate casualties buried in its cemeteries.

After World War I, it was expanded to honor Americans who have died in all wars and military conflicts. And it wasn't until the National Holiday Act of 1971 that it became attached to a three-day weekend. Over the years, I've lent other posts to Memorial Day, including some words of President Abraham Lincoln, a speech written for the American War Mothers, and several historic photos when there was nothing left to say. Good night and good luck.

Friday, May 27

Asking Questions: If Websites Could Talk

About Me StrategyYou never really know how people interpret information until they apply it elsewhere. Nowadays, some people truly believe that social media will eventually supplant websites entirely.

Even a post by Jeremiah Owyang about integrating social functions into websites was attributed to Altimeter and reframed as another call for the death of business websites all together. (The spin itself demonstrated the venerability of social media.) However, all of the calls for the demise of websites miss the point.

Websites won't die. But their functionality will have to change.

All that really means is, somewhat to Owyang's point, social media tools and networks will be built into websites, changing the functionality from the 5-page content template into something, hopefully, that makes sense for the people who visit the site.

That has nothing to do with social media per se. It is, however, one of several reasons some people mistake why the "social media revolution" happened. It's also why news organizations continue to grapple in the new world. And it's why some social media intellects want you to believe that you and your company and your communication are powerless (unless you hire them).

Maybe a better word for the revolution is push back. For all the advances made in the early 1990s in regard to mass media communication, there was one major setback. Mass media, and its advertising and publicity bedfellows, dominated information. Even if someone was unhappy with anything, an individual voice didn't have any value compared to the conglomerate.

In fact, the only information out there was for awhile was decided on by the people with the largest audiences — agencies publishing brochures, public relations firms pitching stories, and new media setting the agenda. There was no other choice.

Social media is the revolution as much as the revolution is choice.

choicesIn other words, if people are visiting a corporate website less, it probably has less to do with the noun "website" and more to do with the descriptor "corporate." Or, even more simply put, the reasons people don't visit or stay on a corporate website is because whatever they are looking for just isn't there.

What is there? Generally, most corporate websites are little more than an "I love me" wall, adorned with trophies, awards, and sales pitches. Sure, some sites toss in some SEO-crooked copy, maybe some runaway advertainment, and whatever website builders can sell.

If your company website could talk, what would it say?

The whole thing is rather preposterous when you think about it. A person visits a site with an expressed interest, i.e., Who can I talk to about a product defect or service problem?

To which the site responds, i.e., Would you like to play a game?

Increasingly unhappy, the person turns to Google. Who can I talk to about a product defect or service problem?

And Google answers, i.e., I really don't know, but I can tell you where all the other people experiencing product defects or service problems are going. Would you like to go? Heck yeah!

Social networks did add another choice. Who can I talk to about a product defect or service problem?

To which the site responds, i.e., Try the live representative on Facebook or Twitter.

So, the person follows the advice to find stacks of unanswered complaints, representatives who only know what the daily deal is, or an endless stream of content that might as be labeled "see more about me on my 'I love me' wall."

Two tips for more effective online content and communication.

First, erase any notion that social media and websites are somehow different and can cannibalize each other. Saying that social media cannibalizes a website is akin to thinking that in-store salespeople somehow steal sales from an advertisement in the Sunday paper. This stuff works together. (*One caveat, duplicate social media content can cannibalize each other.)

Along with erasing the notion of separation, kill the widely adopted prospect that social media and networks are feeders to the varied 200 "about me" pages on websites. (Let's be honest, every single page of a website might as well be labeled "about me.")

questionsSecond, start thinking about why people are coming to your website. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they are not coming to read "about me" pages, play games, or be diverted to a social network (unless the social network can answer their question).

They ask different questions. So if you want to build a more effective website, start thinking about the questions your customers and prospects ask most often. Then start thinking about what they might ask if they even knew to ask it. And then start considering the best methods to deliver the answers, which may or may not include Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Still unconvinced? Take some cues from some of the top websites in world. All of them answer very specific questions. Here are the top five most visited, recognizing that even networks are really websites with more functionality.

Where can I find some information online? Google.
What are my friends and family doing right now? Facebook.
Where can I find some video of >fill in the blankWhere can I find some information if I hate Google? Yahoo.
What if I need information and I'm Chinese? Baidu.

And so on and so forth. More to the point: If consumers are turning to social networks with increased frequency, doesn't it stand to reason that they do it because your website isn't answering their questions? Maybe that's something worth thinking about.

Wednesday, May 25

Testing For Confusion: Crowdsource

crowdsourcingA few months ago, Danny Brown asked a very good question. Is social media crowdsourcing making us lazy? While he was writing from an individual perspective — suggesting we search, research, and seek relevant resources on our own — some businesses might be getting flabby in how they quantify, qualify, and analyze research.

It was one of the points I alluded to while presenting an adapted version of Thomas Sowell's concept by applying it to social media intellectuals. Some people took exception to the post, claiming it was divisive without solutions for certain prattle. (Think about it.)

The lesson doesn't come from social media. It comes from marketing and community relations.

Years ago, I worked on the front end of Clark County Regional Flood Control District for an agency client. The project included one of the first flood control detention basin projects in the greater Las Vegas area. Specifically, we developed one of the community relations prototypes for neighborhoods that might be impacted (temporarily and permanently) by the necessary construction.

People who live in the area might know the name of the project. Mission Hills Detention Basin Dam is on a tributary of the Las Vegas Wash located in the City of Henderson. Its function is to redirect flood waters to prevent houses from being washed away.

Even when the initial design was being considered, it was important for the city, county, agency, architect, and construction company to receive residents' input throughout the project — ranging from which streets would provide the safest routes for construction trucks to what the 26-foot high berm might look like upon completion (since many residents would lose valued views).

What was very interesting about this prototype community relations plan was it involved several methods of gathering data from area residents so the team would benefit from a better perspective of research. One stream of input was not enough.

low pricesFrom the communication perspective, we developed numerous ways to gather input: one-on-one interviews, private suggestions ballots, selective focus groups, open forums, and surveys. Why? Because the method and the medium can sometimes turn uninformed opinion into undesirable outcomes. And I mean undesirable for anyone.

Of course, I don't suspect too many people can relate to the finer points of flood control detention basin communication. So, I've transposed some of the notes into a more consumer-friendly model.

Transforming Marketing Surveys Into Market Testing.

• Individual Trial Response. Ask preselected customers to try a product for free or at a reduced cost and then solicit their input. Often, the intent is to find issues from the consumer's perspective. Don't direct them to find problems (because they'll make some up if so directed). And never videotape the response (because people tend to provide affirmative responses on camera).

• Focus Groups. Present the product to a select group of consumers or qualified experts to try the product and discuss it. Two cautions. Watch to make sure that one or two or three people don't eventually lead the group in a specific direction. And, always host more than one session, especially if one group fixates on a specific issue. (This is also why we had private suggestion ballots; some people clam up in public.)

• Open Forums. While similar to focus groups, open forums go beyond gathering input and create an opportunity for dialogue between stakeholders and consumers. For example, if the focus group on its own concludes the product would look best in blue, then designers and manufacturers can offer that the color might have consequences — like adding $10 in price.

• Controlled Tests. One classic marketing test model is taking advantage of stores that will carry some new products for a price. While the product will generally not benefit from any advertising assistance, it could provide its first test against competitors. One caution. Controlled tests aren't really product tests on the front end. They are more likely to be considered packaging tests.

• Test Markets. Clearly, test markets are always the most beneficial but sometimes cost-prohibitive tests, which is why large companies try while medium and small companies sometimes do not. Online, it's the essence of alpha and beta testing to some degree. You do what you want to do, just on a limited scale. Then check for results.

Then, of course, there are all the rest... surveys, interviews, etc. I know most people know these methods, but the rehash sets up the point.

The more methods in play, the greater your chance is to refine the product and move it away from what's become the biggest source of confusion caused by online crowdsourcing — conversations turned over to the crowd while letting the chips fall where they may with all sorts of influences you cannot begin to guess at. It's worse than the exhibition of being a flabby business. It very likely can put your company on the wrong path.

Consider several market testing methods instead and look for similar outcomes. It's the easiest way to begin transforming intellectual thinking into tangible experience. But even then, always be cautious anyway.

Sometimes doing it right works, as it did with the Regional Flood Control District, teaching the developers that the most vocal in the community were a minority. And sometimes doing it right doesn't work, which is why there was an Arch Deluxe.

Related Posts From Around The Web.

Memo to Crowdsourcing: Grow Up by Geoff Livingston
Five Ways Social Media Will Change Journalism by Ike Pigott
Could Crowdsourcing Help Pass The Turning Test? by Brendan Cooper

Monday, May 23

Moving Toward Social Media: Now What?

now whatAccording to a recap by Smart Company, Nielsen reports that three-quarters of Australian companies fully embrace social media with as much as 10 percent of their marketing budgets slated to social media. There is some discrepancy between large and medium businesses.

The Nielsen-Community Engine 2011 Social Media Business Benchmarking Study finds that 35 percent of large companies have a stronger presence than medium-sized companies. Although smaller businesses could benefit the most, many of them do not have the time or funding to outsource labor intensive work.

At the same time, companies that are engaging in social media are social network focused. More than 21 percent are advertising on Facebook, 15 percent have a company blog, and 16 percent are using paid monitoring services. The study also showed that 43 percent of companies see social media as a way to communicate to customers, 25 percent see it as an opportunity to respond to customers, and 23 percent see it as a tool for research and insight.

Nielsen helps tie social media to the tablet e-reader market.

Part of the most recent surge in social media is clearly in the tablet market. Mobile owners use their tablets and smart phones to browse for immediate topic points, during commercials, and to make social connections to the programming they watch (friends who are watching the programs somewhere else in the country). Some highlights from the study:

• 70 percent of tablet owners and 68 percent of smart phone owners use their devices while watching television.
• 57 percent of tablet owners and 51 percent of smart phone owners take their devices to bed.

Nielsen StudyWhen cross referenced with another study by Google's AdMob, a picture starts to develop. According to the survey, 84 percent of people use their tablets for gaming (which has become increasingly social), 78 percent use it for research (searching), 61 percent use it to read news online (portable news), and (from a different study) about 52 percent use it to check social network accounts.

The study that hasn't been done yet is more qualitative, but the anecdotal evidence exists — how are people prompted to take any number of actions that lead them to a destination. It's the one more businesses would certainly appreciate.

The anecdotal evidence exists in that people search for news on their tablets when specific topics are being discussed like a new item or a new release from a band. They might follow a link of a news story from a friend on their social network (the propensity increases with every friend mention too). Or, conversely, they might ask their friends what they think of a particular news item.

The challenge that many businesses face in social media.

Businesses that take the time to have a better understanding of social media will win, but not in ways that are always directly measurable (short of benchmarking). This explains some of the results pulled from a recent Forrester and GSI Commerce study that, on the surface, takes social media to task.

Specifically, the study concluded that social media has almost no influence on online purchasing behavior. Some people mistook this study as Forrester becoming a social media contrarian. But that is not exactly what people ought to have pulled from the study.

To fully understand what is happening with consumers, businesses have to start seeing everything from their point of view. Take a fictional (but based on real life) composite of a consumer watching television with their tablet in hand. The news program flashes that a major terrorist has been killed.

Almost immediately, discontent with the linear timeline of network news, they start searching other news streams for content. And, once they have enough, they might share or see what their friends are saying on the social network.

During all of this, your company is talking about its underwear sale. What do you think about your chances to make a sale now?

sale?Exactly right. To develop a successful social media program companies have to either know when to shut up, adjust to current events, or position themselves as part of the greater community they belong to.

Ergo, just because you represent a company with 10,000 employees doesn't mean much because your company is probably only one account. And just because it is the bigger underwear sale in the history of the company doesn't mean it's the biggest news of the day. It probably isn't. But even if it is, people are more likely to visit the store next week than immediately click and buy.

The point being that investing 10 percent of a marketing budget or more into social media is smart, especially if you want a presence where people are spending more and more time. But investing 10 percent in social media isn't so smart if the underlying strategy is because you think consumers are waiting to celebrate your brand. All they really want to do is connect.

Friday, May 20

Operating Budget: How To Lose A Customer

When we returned the rental car to Tucson International Airport, we were feeling pretty bullish about Budget Rent A Car. The attendant who checked us in had even adjusted our contract because we brought the car back with a full tank, even though we had prepaid for the gas. As I mentioned before, that never happens.

Had Budget had its way, however, any savings could have been erased. Budget Rent A Car spoiled customer satisfaction by claiming we damaged the car three weeks later. You can read all the ugly details about what happened right here: It's why Budget sucks. Worse, we now loathe them and their company, with our resolve being to forgive and forget them permanently. Well, sort of.

Today, I'd rather talk about what might have happened. There are solutions on top of solutions.

Scenario 1: Assume Fault. Budget Rent A Car would have never lost a customer for life had it never sent us a claim letter. Please don't misunderstand me. Had we damaged the car, I would have paid for the repair. But we did not.

Had the car been damaged while it was in our possession, the attendant (per Budget policy) would have notified us at check in.

It is just as likely that any damage, which Budget later defined as "minimal" to the rear door, could have been done by the people who pulled up to us once the car was checked in. Or, maybe it was the attendant who had left the doors open. Or, maybe is was whomever is responsible for washing it. Or, maybe, who knows?

It's a sorry story to think that same attendant who wanted to "save" us money also tried to "stick" us with their mistake. But the solution here is obvious. Budget Rent A Car should have assumed their company, not the customer, damaged the car.

Scenario 2: Ask, Don't Tell. Conversely, maybe Budget Rent A Car wants to be operationally thorough. And upon discovering "minimal" damage to the rear door, wants to know if their customer might have noticed something.

Instead of sending an unsigned impersonal accusation form, they could have sent a letter. They could have included photos. They could have included a detailed description of the damage and asked had we noticed anything when we checked in the car.

Customer inquiries as opposed to accusations can go a long way. I practice the same resolve at my company. If an invoice comes due without being paid, we don't automatically demand copies of their bank statements. We find out if the check was lost in the mail. Of course, in this case, we wouldn't have been able to help because there was no damage when we left.

A phone call might have worked too. Paper is expensive and not always very responsible.

Scenario 3: Expedite Service. Even if the ineffective operational policy and procedure did not work, it would be prudent for Budget Rent A Car to provide a phone number that could be reached at their customer's convenience and not their own.

At minimum, even if nobody wants to work weekends at the Budget Investigation Unit and portions of their customer service department, at least give the working people enough information to answer basic questions. You know, like "What the flip are you talking about?"

The customer service crash was the worst display of general ineptitude that I've ever had the misfortune to experience. Even the customer representative who took ownership didn't keep his promise to call by noon. According to him, it took all morning to get any information from the Budget Vehicle Damage Control Department.

Seriously? I can't fathom how long it would have taken me. Is damage running so rampant at Budget that not only do they have an entire division dedicated to bilking customers, but they also have special divisional "units" to handle all of the details? Are they so busy that it takes half the day to respond to someone in their own company?

Scenario 4: Suck It Up. Budget Rent A Car accepted that they broke their own policy, admitted the customer service was shabby, and ultimately "waived the claim." Two representatives have promised to send formal letters of apology. And one offered a customer service certificate for the lies and runarounds we experienced with their staff. (I'm satisfied with the apologies.)

However, never once did the company acknowledge one of their employees or another customer damaged the vehicle. It's a small consolation, but one their customer service representative couldn't even grasp. He thought I would be appreciative that the claim was dropped.

And that's the rub. Budget Rent A Car maintains we were at fault and they are being gracious in all of their benevolence.

It's not about me anymore. It's about possible fraudulent insurance claims practices.

Since Monday, I have had several productive phone conversations. It seems that state legislators may be very interested in drafting consumer advocacy legislation for the State of Nevada.

At minimum, the legislation will require car rental companies to perform a walkaround with any customer before accepting the rental vehicle to prevent pass-on damage liability. Among other ideas, it may also include a non-insurance attribution process to ensure the abundance of car rental insurance claims do not drive insurance rates up, which impacts people who rent cars or not.

While my personal experience originated in Arizona, consumer advocacy laws also have a tendency to be passed from one state to the next. As soon as we can get a bill up in Nevada, the draft will be forwarded to legislators in Arizona and surrounding states.

As the bill passes, Budget and its parent company, Avis, will likely have to staff more personnel to accommodate, cutting into their recent profit surges. It may also help curb the recent consolidation of the car rental industry. Currently, Avis is attempting to work around anti-trust laws to acquire remaining competitors. There are only four national companies left.

Personally, I'm not very keen about regulatory oversight. But when companies "try harder" to screw customers, they earn it.

Wednesday, May 18

Sharing Passion: Patch Adams And BloggersUnite

Patch Adams
If passion can be defined as a deep, overwhelming and powerful emotion one possesses for someone or something, then compassion might be defined as the ability to impart the best of it with someone else. The feeling they experience might even be different, leaving those touched mesmerized by their passion even if they don't adopt the same fervor. But the results are the same.

It's something not all communicators consider — and yet it is the foundation that sets so many campaigns and causes apart from one another. We rally around certain brands not so much because we're soda pop loyalists, airlines aficionados, or whatnot, but because the people behind the product have an uncanny passion for it that we can't quite understand, especially so if it is something as simple as three-ply toilet paper.

Of course, this particular post has nothing to do with something as commonplace as wipes. It's about a man who became a doctor, not so much for the profit his generation assumed it would bring but with an intense passion for the people who needed his help.

Dr. Patch Adams and his uncanny ability to transform passion into compassion.

I co-wrote an article about the International Day Of Compassion this weekend, but held off on adding something here because I thought the topic deserved a different angle. Instead of being informative, the life work of Dr. Patch Adams might be used as a teaching tool for a purpose one-off from medicine and more closely aligned with humanitarianism.

Since 1991 (and before), I've been honored to have donated my time to more than 60 different nonprofit organizations at one time or another. Some still leave me with a sense of pride today and others left me disenchanted, distressed or even disenfranchised. The difference, which can easily be applied to the private sector, is where people place their passion.

Those that make me smile for the honor of service, always managed to keep their focus on whatever cause they generally supported — teaching someone to read for the first time, rehabilitating homeless veterans, helping an orphan smile, or ensuring a parent could stay in the city where their child received medical attention. There are hundreds of examples.

And then there are those that slowly drift away from the cause or sense of purpose, pouring their passion into internal or even state politics, executive and staff paycheck protection, or just wanting to be right more often than they ever do the right thing. There are a few dozens of those, thankfully not as many as the former.

ClownsDr. Adams is an exemplary model. Even when his expectations were proven wrong, he ignored any setbacks and persisted in sharing his passion, changing the world in sometimes small and sometimes extraordinary ways. And what makes his successes so uncanny is that he seldom asks for donations or volunteers but gets them anyway — even if it takes longer than he sometimes hopes.

He doesn't have to make direct asks or sales pitches or follow policies. Instead, he asks people who cross his path to share his passion — spreading humor and compassion whenever and wherever possible. He does it in a unique way too, making people want to support his dream and pursue some dreams of their own. You can see it firsthand by learning more about the Gesundheit! Institute.

But even more than that, Adams does something that few people ever do. Even if they don't make a donation, volunteer, or help him in another way, he still has made the world a better place by sharing his passion for compassion. And it still spreads.

Passion and compassion apply to communicators in the private sector.

It's the fundamental difference between social media programs that work and don't work (traditional campaigns too). Profit-driven (or deadline-driven or volume-driven) programs tend to deliver flatter campaigns, even if the short-term ROI is high.

Have you ever wondered why? The great unequalizer is often underpinned by passion for the product and compassion for the people who might buy it or have an experience. Or, in other words, I've never met someone who is successful peddling products they consider "boring" (passion) or unconcerned with each individual customer's experience (compassion). At least, no one successful in the long run.

Or, in yet other words, if you cannot communicate with passion and have the intent of compassion, then don't. People can tell. Sooner or later.

Monday, May 16

Cashing In Customers: Budget Rent A Car

ArizonaCombined, Budget Rent a Car and its parent company Avis Rent a Car generate about $4 billion in car rental revenues. The company is doing well enough that it has put in a bid to purchase Enterprise or Dollar Thrifty, once it gets past anti-trust hurdles.

And yet, the company known for its long-running tagline "We Try Harder" and its subsidiary closes customer service on the weekend. Well, maybe. It depends on who you talk to.

Does Avis still try harder? Apparently, not under the Budget banner or on the weekends.

When you receive an unsigned form requesting insurance information from the Budget Vehicle Damage Department as part of an accident "investigation" without any other information — description of damage, evidence, police report — it's something you want to resolve immediately. You feel a sense of urgency, because you know there was no accident or damage.

The form, dated May 6, was received May 14, approximately three weeks from the time of the rental. We know there wasn't a problem because, until May 14, I would have described the rental experience as better than smooth. The attendant who checked the car at the Tucson airport didn't cite any damage. In fact, he adjusted our contract because we brought the car back with a full tank, even though we had prepaid for the gas. Trust me. That never happens.

Any semblance of good will quickly evaporated, not on receipt of the form, but in trying to resolve it. When my wife called the number on the form, she discovered that department was closed. She tried the customer service department, which was also closed.

Then she tried another number, a separate customer service number if you want to extend your rental period. After 20 rings, someone answered. They transferred her to roadside assistance. Roadside assistance was as perplexed as she was about why she was transferred to them.

Since my wife was frustrated, I set my deadline aside to send customer service an email, letting them know I think it sucks that a billion dollar company that provides services on the weekend would shutter up its customer service department during operating hours.

Tip 1. Don't force customers seeking private resolution to look for public customer service.

Believing I would not get a response until Monday, I sought the attention of the person staffing Budget's Twitter account. She immediately offered to help, asking me to follow Budget so we could send direct messages. It's a standard social media tactic that doesn't work unless they can actually help you. This one could not.

The primary goal is to move any complaint away from a public forum not help the customer. Still, the Twitter representative requested various numbers — with each message piling into my DM thread at a rate of four to one. I gave her the information. And within seconds ... she told me customer service was closed on the weekend. Sigh.

Tip 2: Don't castrate your social media reps by limiting their ability to provide customer service.

Customer Service FailI wrote back a cheeky reply and un-followed Budget. With the conversation public again, Twitter monitor Ashley retorted that (sic) "As mentioned, customer service is closed but I would've liked to help w/ the resolution to ur issue when they reopen on Monday."

My thought about social media is pretty clear on this point. If you empower employees to manage Twitter, they ought to be able to manage customer service. And shortly after that comment, I received an email from Budget's customer service department.

Customer service was suddenly open. He instructed to me to call the Accident and Damage Claims Department (a different department and number than the Investigation Department on the form). They would be open on Monday.

I responded that I thought it was ironic that a customer service department that was supposedly closed would refer me to another department that is supposedly closed. To me, a resolution at this point would no longer be sufficient. An apology was in order.

Tip 3: Don't silo your operations to the point that nobody knows what they are doing.

While I was musing on Twitter that I wondered how many tweets it would take before Budget realized its customer service issue was becoming a crisis communication scenario (about 30 tweets, in case you were wondering), my cell phone rang. It was Budget's customer service department.

The representative told me that they had recently decided to extend their customer service hours. Obviously, somebody forget to tell their social media team.

He asked me to detail the experience, because other than the note his manager gave him to call me, he had no knowledge of my grievance. I started over, being mindful not to allow a rant to overshadow a resolution.

At that point, he assured me that it was Budget's policy to inform the customer of any damage at the point of drop off. He said that although he had no access to claims records, he would advocate my issue on Monday (today) by noon. He gave me his direct number.

BudgetWhile I wasn't really satisfied, I could accept his course of action.

About a half hour later, customer service emailed me, saying they would gladly provide a formal apology letter and would like to also include a customer service certificate. I told this second representative, who identified himself as an Avis customer service representative on the second email (same person, different company), that if a customer service certificate is a discount, I would still be leery of renting from a company that claims an accident when no accident occurred, three weeks afterward.

I am, of course, very interested in receiving the formal apology. I might even post it in the follow up.

Tip 4: Effective customer service saves your company time, money, and heartache.

Primarily because of the silo-heavy operations and faulty internal communication of Budget, along with Avis (since some operations are apparently shared), five different representatives worked on an issue that they were not able to resolve. Of the five, only one took real ownership (no resolution, but a course of action) and another took partial ownership (no resolution, but the promise of an apology). All of it could have been avoided had the initial customer service department picked up the phone.

But more than that, there were several points of contact that could have taken ownership. None of them ever did. And none of them, despite having the same rental agreement number, knew what the other representatives were doing.

Tip 5: Even minor investigations have a nasty way of uncovering some facts.

Unlike Budget, our small local insurance company and our attorney can be reached to provide customer service on the weekend. What they told my wife was difficult to believe. They both said that with increased frequency, Budget and other car rental companies have started to treat normal wear and tear on vehicles as damages that customers are obligated to pay for.

In fact, had we done as requested — provided insurance information without specific knowledge of any damage or any evidence of damage (keeping in mind there was no damage) — it would have been akin to admitting an incident occurred and that we were liable. They believe, adamantly, that is what Budget was hoping we would do.

They even recommended that we copy and cc the state insurance commission all written correspondence. The problem is that severe. There are state investigations into these fraudulent practices.

Given a car rental company charges rental rates that can pay for a car five times over in a month plus retain the resale value of the asset, it seems almost impossible to believe they would subscribe to such a tactic. However, it's more common than you think.

budget sucksOther stories, including those that cite Budget specifically, also say that many companies have reversed their old policy of having agents perform a walkaround with the customer prior to accepting the vehicle. The cursory walkarounds used to be standard practice so customers agreed with the condition of the car before leaving the lot.

Rental companies do not staff enough people to do so anymore; some of them even have parent companies man empty service desks part time. Many people have requested a pre-checkout walkaround and have been denied. We certainly didn't get one.

Worse, the general feeling from our insurance representative was that rental car companies specifically target individuals who do not subscribe to the fear marketing that rental companies use to solicit additional insurance and roadside assistance fees. That would include people like my family. We have double coverage when we travel — private insurance and travel insurance from our credit card company — and maintain AAA membership for roadside assistance.

Still, it leaves me to wonder what would happen had we bought additional insurance. Would a claim have been filed without our knowledge, possibly marring a perfect driving record? Maybe so. It's hard to say, especially because if the car was damaged it happened well after we turned it in and and well after we flew home. It's even harder to say because the so-called insurance doesn't insure anything anyway.

Preliminary conclusions about the social media customer service issue with Budget.

To date, I don't even know what the supposed damage to the vehicle is. And based on the perfect return, I don't believe for a minute that we damaged the car — let alone were involved in an accident we can't remember.

Regardless of the resolution and pending apology, I still don't think I would ever rent from Budget again. What I do think is that I will be forever compelled to take pictures of a rental car well before we leave the lot. We can call this disorder they cause Budgtophobia, a severe and overwhelming fear of car rental scum.

Kidding aside, I do advise taking pictures of any rental. From everything I've read on the topic, the only people who successfully see faux claims of damages waived are people who make the issue public or take it to the press. The goal of the company seems to be to look like a hero as they overcome the problems they create and to avoid the rigor of investigative reporters.

All of this is a recipe for mistrust of the company and the rental service industry in general. That's not so easy to do. To earn such a distinction, you really do have to try harder.

Living case study ahead. The follow-up post on Friday, with a growing list of improvement points for Budget Rent a Car.

Friday, May 13

Moving Forward: Success As A Verb

“Success is a journey not a destination. The doing is usually more important than the outcome.” — Arthur Ashe

Sure, you’ve seen the quote used often enough (usually twisted and unattributed) that it borders on cliche. And it might seem out of place for someone who tends to be outcome focused. However, it doesn’t make the concept any less valid. Success works better as a verb than an adjective.

I had a discussion with my son the other day. Although he is only 12, he wanted to begin some type of physical fitness training.

So I gave him a schedule suitable for his age. But he almost didn't commit because the first few days surprised him. He wasn't as strong as he thought he was and had to reduce the weight related to some exercises. It was discouraging, he said. I'm weak.

I encouraged him not to give up. He was already succeeding because he was moving in the right direction. Everything else is just a matter of time and commitment.

A few days later, he found that the exercises were getting easier. And with every day he succeeded in completing a schedule of sets, he felt a sense of accomplishment (and was impressed by early results). I feel stronger, he said. His muscles tighter.

So, I used his discovery as a teaching opportunity. I mentioned the Ashe quote, but in a different context.

“No matter where you are in life, all of it is nothing more than a temporary state of being.”

In other words, it doesn't just apply to fitness. It applies to everything. Weak; strong. Fat; fit. Poor; rich. Burning water; celebrity chef. Struggling hack; brilliant author. Eager entrant; respected professional. Unread blogger; popular publisher. So on and so forth.

Almost every label you can dream up is nothing more than an adjective that takes a snapshot of the place where you are, without considering the place you're moving toward. And as such, they don't matter all that much.

I suggested that my son picture two extremes in his mind on a mile-long line. Imagine where he was on that line. And then imagine imagine moving toward the extreme he wants. Once he did, I told him to erase it all and focus on the movement in the direction he had picked. That's all that matters.

Let's face it. Most people never reach either extreme destination. And if they do, their time there is only temporary. A best-selling author only retains the title until his next book. A boxing champion eventually gives it back. This year's best actress isn't necessarily the same one who will accept the prize next year.

What's more important than adopting the snapshots as labels is continually moving in the right direction at a comfortable pace. Pace is important, but only because people generally work on several dozen goals at once. (No one can set the highest pace for all of them they eventually want.}

The secret to success is never thinking you’ve achieved it.

While it might come across as a paradox, most people who are successful find themselves striving for some higher or seemingly unreachable benchmark. Meanwhile, people who say they are successful are usually on their way down, perhaps already having enjoyed a brief moment of weightlessness after being shot up into the air with the full force of 4 Gs.

success2Imagine what would happen to my son a few years from now if he set some benchmark of success based on how much weight he could lift. If he stopped working out after reaching it, it wouldn't be long before he wouldn't be able to do it again.

In other words, success as an adjective isn't a place you stay. It's a temporary state of being while we are continually moving in one direction or the other.

At first, my son thought this sounded a bit discouraging. But then might find it liberating. If he wants to build strength, the act of building it makes him successful. That will never change (unless he gives up or moves in the other direction), making the verb more powerful.

Whereas the adjective is a snapshot, success as a verb is a journey. And knowing this, he doesn't have to think of himself as weak (he's not anyway, given his age) nor afraid of what areas need more work than other areas. All that matters is he is getting stronger every day and I wasn't only talking about fitness. Success is a verb in anything we do.

“I run on the road, long before I dance under the lights.” — Muhammad Ali

Wednesday, May 11

Listening To Experts: Or Social Media Intellectuals?

smart guyAlthough a recent Hoover Institution video, Peter Robinson interviews Thomas Sowell, had political overtones, it also inspires some questions that fit for social media. Are the experts that your company is listening to "experts" or "intellectuals" and why does it matter?

If you ask Sowell, your company might be cautious listening to "intellectuals," people whose end products are only ideas. It might be worthwhile to consider other intelligent people who produce end products like vaccines or buildings or campaigns and programs instead. The difference between the two isn't only in what they know (or think they know) but it's also a matter of attitude and accountability.

The latter is one of the first distinctions Sowell points out in the interview. Intellectuals do not have accountability to their ideas whereas people who execute ideas are frequently held accountable. The reason for the exemption is obvious. Intellectuals can fault the execution. They can fault the data drawn upon to make their conclusions. They can fault unexpected events.

The concept makes for a compelling argument, especially when it's moved to a new field like social media where there are few experts and many thought leaders. It might even be safe to say that some people are operating within the sphere with nothing more than ideas or, more specifically, opinions — ninjas who are so unfamiliar with a sword that they still struggle with their butter knife at dinner.

Five Warning Signs That You're Working With A Social Media Intellectual.

• The belief that their knowledge of things far exceeds their experiences.
• The notion that superiority in one field transcends into superiority in all fields.
• The willingness to provide advice without having the benefit of consequential knowledge.
• The over-reliance on studies, surveys, and statistics without looking at individual people.
• The unwillingness to rigorously review data that might run contrary to their own conclusions.

These types of behaviors abound in social media. Some social media experts tell executives how to run a company. They have ideas related to political policy. They make a living as consultants without ever managing a campaign (beyond their own). And they draw conclusions based on a singular study. And social media people search for validation more often than truth.

It doesn't have to be social media people, of course. The entire communication industry has a tendency to over reach into topic areas where they have no experience or even consequential knowledge.

I remember one "expert," for example, who suggested an ice cream company make whatever flavors people could dream up (and then convince them to sell it) without ever considering the operational nightmare of cleaning out the machines in between every new concoction. Suffice to say, it was an intellectual daydream and not even a very good one (and that's without mentioning all the problems associated with nut allergies).

ideaDon't get me wrong. It seems to me that intellectuals can be very useful, especially if they dream up stuff that other people do not. But any company hiring them as consultants has to vet every suggestion and rigorously research the contrarian views.

Why? Because at the end of the day, unlike the intellectuals who think about it, the people who actually do it will be held accountable. It's especially true when such advice begins to drift away from social media and into human resources, customer service, production, pricing, loyalty programs, how your shoes look with blue pants, what your spouse might like for dinner, and where your kids should go to school.

Sure, you can ask their opinion on all that stuff if you like. However, opinions from intellectuals — especially those propped up by popularity — are exactly what they sound like. They are opinions, and they might even be opinions of lesser value than non-intellectual experts who happen to be immersed in the business of doing. Or, at minimum, doers will be well equipped to vet.

Monday, May 9

Advertising Obesity: Are Marketers To Blame?

scaleIf you thought that the United States was the only country targeting advertisers and marketers as the cause of childhood obesity, you'd be wrong. Australia has it out for chocolate and junk food too.

As proposed, the national blueprint would join aggressive anti-obsesity legislation shared only by Sweden and Quebec. Not only does the legislation regulate junk food advertising to children, but it kills chocolate-based fundraising drives in schools.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the blueprint would specifically limit television ads during certain times and ban all advertising across email, text messages, movies, magazines, school fundraisers, and public transport.

One study suggested that as much as 84 percent of the public supported the idea that "children should be protected from unhealthy food advertising."

In the United States, there have been similar efforts to curb childhood obesity, with most marketers attempting to make voluntary changes. For example, cereal companies have reduced the amount of sugar in their products.

The CDC reports that approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents, ages 2—19 years, are obese. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) breaks the numbers differently. It says 10.4 percent of American children, ages 2 to 5, are obese; 19.6 percent, ages 6 to 11, are obese; and 18.1 percent, ages 12 to 19, are obese. Three children in five are overweight.

However, almost all studies to determine obesity is based on body mass index (BMI), developed in the 1800s. It tends to overestimate body fat in people with a more muscular build. Ironically, BMI does not actually measure the percentage of body fat despite being used to do so in most government studies. It might even promote malnutrition.

BMI flawsBMI was only adopted as the result of Ancel Keys' efforts to popularize the measure in 1972 (he also marketed a specific type of diet). In recent years, Keys' studies have been criticized. Likewise, it wasn't until 1998 that the U.S. adopted World Health Organization standards and dropped the BMI obesity rating from 27.6 to 25. When that happened, 25 million Americans went from normal/overweight to obese.

A better measure might be a waist-to-height (WHtR) ratio. This measure tends to be more accurate for athletes, especially body builders, who have a higher percentage of muscle and a lower percentage of body fat. It also helps women who have a "pear" rather than an "apple" shape. A WHtR under 50.0 percent is generally considered healthy.

As a personal illustration, I score as borderline obese on a BMI scale, but the target waist-to-height (WHtR) ratio matches exactly where I am. If I attempted to reduce my BMI, I would look gaunt and force starvation. One inch off the waist would be a balanced solution. There's a reason for pointing out the discrepancies..

Maybe marketing and advertising isn't as evil as people would have you believe.

While it is clearly good news that manufacturers have reduced the amount of sugar in cereal, the reduction of advertising to children doesn't necessarily correlate to changes in their diet. In fact, Kate Carnell, chief executive of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, pointed out that aggressive bans on advertising junk food in Sweden and in Quebec, Canada, have not worked.

How can that be? Technically, advertising to children has no real effect because children are generally powerless to take action. They need parental assistance to obtain excessive amounts of unhealthy products. In short, advertising is effective only when children do not understand the intent of advertising (to sell product) and parents are incapable of setting effective boundaries.

bikingAdd two more pieces to the puzzle. When Britain faced similar questions about childhood weight issues, it found that children expend about 600 kcal/day less than their counterparts 50 years ago. And, children today are also subjected to more "anti" unhealthy lifestyle choices.

The latter is especially concerning because "anti" campaigns actually undermine their own messages. Take anti-smoking commercials aimed at youth as an example. Every time they are exposed to the advertisement, they are forced to think about smoking. Ergo, when you tell children not to do something or not to eat something, you implant an image in their mind of them doing exactly what you told them not to do. It ought to be part of parenting 101.

If you want to bring about a positive outcome for kids, banning advertising isn't the solution. It might even be just the opposite.

• Appreciate that the studies many governments use to indicate obesity are flawed; avoid labels.
• Educate your children, early on, that the intent of advertising is to sell them something; be skeptical.
• Teach your children that setting boundaries is not a parent-child conflict; say no and mean it.
• Encourage healthy behavior (exercise, activity) over anti-advertising messaging; show them.
• Reduce access to stationary activities, e.g., television time and computer time; stress fitness.

If parents can take these actions, there won't be a need for overreaching regulation. More importantly, your children will remain healthy, and treats as an occasional reward or opportunity to have fun together over dessert won't have any impact whatsoever. Moderation and will power is an effective life lesson whereas focusing on scarcity or sacrifice predisposes misery.

Friday, May 6

Rethinking Education: The Parental Role

studentsA few weeks ago, I wrote a trio of posts revolving around education. They focused on immersive education, student expectation, and system solutions. Never once did I mention parental obligation. And several people said I ought to have. But I didn't. And it was intentional.

That is not to say there isn't a parental role. But I have mixed feelings about the increasing role parents are "supposed" to play.

On one hand, there is a clear need for parents to insist — demand — a change. On the other, there doesn't seem to be much point in sending children to school if the obligation of educating them falls to the parent anyway.

From an idealistic standpoint, schools are the educators and parents provide oversight. From a practical and pragmatic standpoint, there is a need for parents to become more involved because a failing system means someone has to be accountable. And when it comes to our children, the buck stops with us as parents. So the question is answered in two ways.

The Role Of The Parent Reformer.

Whether you have children or not, take some time to watch Waiting For Superman. The film lags in places, but still provides a primer for what is being lost.

Visit General membership is free, but there are opportunities to make donations. If nothing else, will keep you apprised of what is happening in the school systems, including some of the less effective policies such as favoring seniority over effectiveness when schools have to cut back.

Become as involved in the school as possible. Depending on the school, it might be worthwhile to join the PTA. However, closer to home, we found the local PTA was less of a cooperative between parents and teachers and more of a cooperative between parents and teachers' unions. Even on the national level, the PTA has become politicized, saying it only supports charter schools if they accept the "positions and principles of the National PTA." Enough said.

As an alternative, parents can make direct connections with the teachers and principals of the school on their own. Many parents are sometimes concerned that if they critique an ineffective teacher, there will be retribution. However, it's simply not true. In a worst case scenario, you can demand that your child be moved.

SupermenAs a parental reformer, the time invested can make a difference while keeping the responsibility and accountability of education on the school. Educators and administrators do have a tendency to listen to squeaky wheels. Be squeaky. It's important for two reasons.

First, sooner or later, children outpace parents in terms of the subjects they study. Students won't be able to rely on their parents in college. Second, not every parent is capable of picking up the educational slack, e.g., educational success should not be dependent on whether or not a single parent has to work two jobs.

It would be worthwhile for parents to have a psychological shift in how they perceive education. Younger parents, especially first-time parents, tend to get too caught up in seeking teacher-school affirmation that their child or children are smart and well-behaved. Instead, the emphasis, even early on, ought to be on accountability because every child has the potential to be "smart " and socially responsible. It's the schools' and teachers' responsibility to ensure the potential isn't wasted.

The Role Of The Parent Educator.

While I maintain that the role of education ought to be the responsibility of the school, it would be dishonest not to recognize that parents are becoming more burdened with education. I had a conversation with my mother, who is raising my niece and nephew, about education. And she doesn't recall having to invest nearly the same amount of time in my education as theirs.

Specifically, unlike when I attended school, the children are being sent home with homework they are not prepared to do. In some cases, they mention that their teacher did not have time to cover it in class or, at least, enough for the students to fully grasp the problem.

Baloney. The steps in early education are straightforward. Give students some foreshadow of what they will learn (advanced material with practice problems), show them how to do it (in-class instruction), ask them to do it with oversight (in-class assignment), ask them to do it on their own (homework), and then go over those areas where a majority of the class struggles.

While the teachers ought to be following these steps, parents have to be more reactive if they do not. In terms of homework, parents do the most good if they ensure an environment for study (no television, distractions), review the work, make sure they understand the concept, and then check the work after the child completes it on their own, requiring them to find the solutions for any missed. (Never do their homework!) Of course, this only works if the parent can understand the homework.

Beyond providing oversight — making sure your children understand homework, are turning in assignments, and are maintaining acceptable grades — parents who want to be involved in their child's education need to find ways to augment their education. It's not easy, which I can illustrate by example.

My son started struggling with reading in the second and third grades not because of his skill level as much as the subject material he would choose. He couldn't connect with the books. And after I read a few, I could appreciate why. They sucked.

educationSo, I decided to guide him toward a better selection (only to find out most of the books I knew were not on the AR list). Undeterred, we scoured an online listing looking for high-rated books that touched upon some of his interests; about 20. From those 20, he chose five based on their summaries. His reading immediately improved, even though we had to prod the school to order the tests that coincided with the books. It seems they only order tests for some AR books.

Where the fiction selection paid off beyond meeting school requirements was in discovering related nonfiction interests. For example, his interest in Greek mythology (which in turn opened up history). While we didn't go further, that historical context could have easily opened up art and writing assignments. In short, it helped create an immersive education structure.

For my daughter, things will be a bit different. After considering our options, we decided to enroll her in a private school, starting in kindergarten. Two interesting facts about the school. First, they have an immersive educational format like the one I advocate. And second, while they encourage parental involvement, they accept full accountability for education without relying on parents to augment their education.

It makes me wonder. Why aren't public schools doing the same? But more importantly, despite the examples above, the primary areas of focus for parents are best placed in teaching children social skills (respect for others), the value of education (self-respect), and a love for learning (quest for knowledge).

That will be the foundation that propels them, more than any hands-on eduction. Does that make sense? Although parents are forced to be more hands on for pragmatism, the best thing we can teach our children is the desire to educate themselves. Because if we fail at that, then any educational prodding is merely a Band-Aid until they aren't ours to prod anymore.

Wednesday, May 4

Marketing Public Relations: Truvia

SteviaOn the heels of becoming the number two sugar substitute in America, with a 12.8 percent share of the retail sugar substitute category, Truvia released a "study" confirming that "U.S. moms are already buying (or interested in buying) products made with the Truvia® brand for the whole family, including their kids."

Yes, there is some oddity in the language. But let's lay the groundwork.

The "study" was a survey (conducted by the company) of 2,417 primary grocery shoppers, U.S. moms ages 18-59 with children ages 1-18 in the household. It was fielded in October 2010. According to the findings:

When moms were asked about potential products that could be made with the Truvia® brand in categories such as dairy, ready-to-eat cereal, confections, and beverages, the findings were similar across all product categories (sic):

• Half to two-thirds of moms who are current product purchasers in these categories are interested in products made with the Truvia® brand.
• These moms also indicated they would purchase these products for the entire family, including the kids. 90% of moms would purchase juice drinks and 89% would purchase ready-to-eat cereal made with the Truvia® brand for their kids.
• Even moms who currently don't buy products in certain categories were interested in buying products made with the Truvia® brand and said they would buy these products for the entire family.

The intent of a dual-pupose release and why they don't always work.

Since being introduced to the market, Truvia faced some skepticism as a sweetener because of the chemistry and unconfirmed reports that the plants are genetically modified.

In general, genetically modified foods are accepted in the United States more than most countries in the world. But what stands out about this one, is the amount of attention being given to the side effects. (Proponents argue that it is on par with any other food allergies typical in a large public.)

Whether there is any substance to either claim is up to science to decide. My interest lies in whether the public relations efforts of Truvia are on par or have they turned a corner. In this case, the story is that Truvia has surpassed Merisant's Equal® (aspartame) for the past 16 months and the 52-year-old brand Cumberland's Sweet'N Low® for the past 12 weeks. (Source: ACNielsen Food/Drug/Mass+Wal-Mart, 4 weeks ending 3/19/11.)

So, why would Truvia mar the facts with vague pullouts from a survey, further complicating the communication by making statements such as "half to two-thirds?" They obviously know what the numbers are. They just didn't release them. If anything, the release makes them more suspect because the public relations and marketing teams are either beating the numbers into submission or attempting to oversell the study.

Five tips for releasing a study, especially without a third party.

• Always include the raw numbers. While it's generally acceptable to round in the release (almost half, more than half, etc.), the difference between roughly 1,200 and 2,000 of 2,400 is a huge discrepancy.
• Always include some methodology. In this case, giving the the readers some indication of the questions asked and/or whether or not these mothers had knowledge of the possible side effects would be helpful.
• Avoid vagueness. According to the writing, the company is bullish that "even" moms who don't buy certain products (dairy, cereal, confections, or beverages) are interested in the product.
• Make it clear that the full study is available; include a direct link to the study where possible. In this case the company merely pointed to the website, which did not include the release along with its listings.
• Never oversell a study. If the facts from the study are solid, let the journalists draw their own conclusions, keeping any "guidance" confined to the quotes. True, understaffed publications aren't likely to investigate nowadays but it still pays to pretend they might.

The entire release is bizarre, but no more bizarre than the entire story revolving around Truvia. There are two odd story tracks revolving around the slick award-winning campaign.

TruviaThe first is that Truvia is a success story. Truvia rebiana is already used as an ingredient in over 30 food and beverage products today, including Glaceau Vitaminwater Zero, YoCrunch 100 Calorie Packs, Kraft Crystal Light Pure, and Minute Maid Premium Pomegranate Tea. It also seems the release was embargoed as the company had pitched several publications (without the study), with Fast Company picking it up. (Truvia's Test: Can Diet Sweeteners Go Natural?) Along with this success story is the possible conspiracy theory of why the primary plant was banned from the U.S.

And then there is the other story. While the markers of Truvia have made efforts to become more transparent, it is manufactured by Cargill, which made the toxic ten list in 2008 despite some heavy-handed greenwashing on the Truvia site (the company pledges to make it better by 25 to 50 percent by 2015). Of course, it is also odd the FDA had no interest in allowing Truvia in the U.S. market until it teamed with Coca-Cola.

The net sum is that Truvia has had to participate in significant public relations efforts since deciding to make a play for the U.S. market. It has obviously won many of those battles, even if the FDA hasn't "approved" the product (it filed a letter of no opposition to rebiana, which are the leaves of the banned stevia plant). So why would it punt with an ill-conceived press release?

The only plausible answer is that the company is feeling some push back after some early success in the market. Specifically, some manufacturers aren't ready to recreate their recipes with Truvia, and the excuse they kick back at Cargill is that moms haven't approved it nor are they demanding it. And, despite the spinning, the survey seems to confirm it.

Monday, May 2

Begging For Conformity: A Social Media Killer

Being DifferentThere's a secret about social media that I thought you might like to know. You'll never get anywhere doing what experts tell you to do.

This is true for Facebook. And it's true for Twitter. It's certainly true for blogs. And it's also true for Digg, StumbleUpon and Reddit. Heck, it's true for any social network or social media tool that your company has its eye on. If you follow the leaders, you will eventually lose.

There Is No Formula For Everyone To Follow.

It's not really about social media per se. It's about human nature. The more things become the same, the more people want someone to drift away from all the sameness. It's why music and art tend to flow in cycles. Ergo, Nirvana opened up grunge until grunge became saturated. Minimalist art had people buying two-tone canvases until Andy Warhol pushed up pop.

It happens in almost every industry. It's even the primary reason newspapers and television news started to struggle. It wasn't so much that social media swept the scene as much as it was that they were reporting on the same things, day after day and year after year. News needed a fresh perspective and social media just happened to be the method of delivery.

Social media experts are doing it now too. As the number of experts has increased exponentially, there are proportionately fewer who don't jump on the the most obvious topical bandwagons (and then sometimes lament that someone "followed" them without credit). Seriously?

Of course everyone is spinning the five-step crisis communication solution to the tragedy du jour. Of course everyone is covering the Delicious shift. Of course everyone wants to talk about the iPad 2. Naturally, most people want to discuss the demise of MyBlogLog. Oh wait, not that one. Some people are embarrassed to mention it.

The point being is that most bloggers and social networkers, commercial or otherwise, have a tendency to follow in everyone else's footsteps. It's what they know. They've been watching the sameness factor of traditional media for too long. It's rubbed off on them.

Nobody wants to be the one person caught not covering something. So it stands to reason that the slowest high-speed chase in history locked every channel into live coverage of a white Suburban on cruise control. Yawn.

There Is No Social Media Formula, Results May Vary.

I've worked on about two dozen social media accounts. Not one of them has been the same, even if they used some of the same tools (sometimes they did not). But that's because I appreciate that social media doesn't drive effective content management. Strategic communication drives effective content management — finding the balance between the core of a company (mission, vision, values) and some objective. (And none of it has to do with eyeballs.)

Sure, there are people who would like to tell you differently. Public relations, for example, likes to add formula pushing the message. Social networks like to follow each other, until the social network eventually fails. And social media experts like to add relevancy to scoring systems that aren't relevant. (Um, Empire Avenue is just a flippin' game, not something that needs to be gamed.)

Geoff Livingston distinguishes the approach between machine gunners and garners. Chris Guillebeau frames it up as a cure for a starving artist. And Julien Smith packages similar advice in a way that only Smith can do.

The secret to social media isn't knowing what everyone else is doing so you can do it. It's knowing what everyone else is doing so that you can do something else.

The Better Way To Build A Social Media Effort.

About a year ago, I was contacted by a specialty contractor who was savvy enough to appreciate that his startup might have a competitive advantage with a social media program, but I passed on the job. The reason I passed was because he sent over a dozen or so links and asked that I create a social media program based on others that he "liked."

Broken ProgramsOf course, I didn't say no outright. I only said no after he insisted I develop a social media program that would undermine his company's core and primary objective, and was predestined to be an exercise in boredom.

You see, as a specialty contractor, he wanted to demonstrate that his firm was creative and different (core). He also had an objective of attracting architects, designers, and creative general contractors — people who are often brought in on the projects first and then refer or bring in people like him (objective).

My solution was different than what he expected. I suggested rather than be like everybody else (push content about his company and opinions), he might want to develop content about the people he wanted to attract. In other words, his program would be underpinned by the great creative work of his prospects.

"But," he frowned. "That might mean giving exposure to my competitors too."

Ho hum. I just didn't have it in me to write marketing copy that masqueraded as social content. So, I suggested he contact a firm that was much more formulaic or attempt to do it himself. I'm not sure what he decided, but I know nobody reads the content.

Why would they? Just like the dozen or so programs he liked, his company has a blog that is nothing much more than a serialized "about me" page. You know, just like everybody else, which speaks volumes about his company. He's just like everybody else, no matter how many times he says otherwise.

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