Wednesday, August 31

Opting Out: How Important Is Privacy?

PrivacyDanny Brown's recent rant about Klout could not have been better timed. The company, like many analytic-based companies, makes money tracking consumer behavior and they do it whether you want them to or not. And they do it at the peril of their own industry.

On Monday, Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan consumer advocacy organization with offices in Washington, D.C. and Santa Monica, Calif., called the self-regulatory privacy program created by online advertisers a failure on the same day it begins.

The advocacy group outlined several areas where the self-regulated program fails to address consumer concerns for a comprehensive "do not track" option. According to the advocacy group, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) fails on several fronts.

Current online privacy failures, according to Consumer Watchdog.

• Consumers are not notified before tracking begins of how and why they are being tracked.
• Consumers can only "opt out" by clearing cookies, and then their opt-out choice is cleared.
• Companies are currently not required to participate; only 11 percent of advertisements do.
• Enforcement is limited to the FTC, but not state attorneys general or individual consumers.
• The elective opt-out program does not currently apply to mobile devices.

"Consumers have no more control today than they did yesterday over whether their information is tracked and collected by companies online," said Carmen Balber, Washington director for Consumer Watchdog. "This industry program is another example of the failure of self-regulation to protect consumers from unwanted monitoring of every move they make on the Internet and their mobile devices."

According to Consumer Watchdog, the only recourse is action to be taken by Congress and the FTC. Consumer Watchdog did not address other tracking companies such as analytic-based companies that collect data and then sell the information to companies, marketers, and anyone hoping to target consumers with perks.

One of the most recent surprise participants in targeting is Stephen King. King is allowing an advanced ebook copy of his new book Mile 81 to be distributed to targeted people. The irony is King recently launched a Green Party talk show on two of his radio stations, claiming to be a little bit left. The Green Party is against Internet targeting without opt out.

The split between public and private activities online.

Consumers have growing concerns about privacy issues, primarily because of continued abuse. On one hand, they have every right to be. We seem far, far away from the original FTC direction.

On the other hand, people are generally too free with their information online. The latter story talks about kids, but adults share more than kids on any given day. And what they don't give up normally, they're willing to give up for an incentive.

What do you think? Is it time to make dramatic changes to the amount of information marketers and analytic companies collect or do people need to come to the conclusion that we lost our privacy somewhere back in 2009?

Monday, August 29

Branding Backfires: Advertising Context

RenoirA new study by researchers from Boston College and the University of Houston finds that fine art doesn't always elevate advertising. Sometimes, it can backfire. And the culprit is context.

"Art is valued for its own sake," said Henrik Hagtvedt, a marketing professor in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. "If brands are associated with art in a tasteful way, consumers will accept and even appreciate it. But as soon as the artwork is viewed as a mere product-relevant illustration, it is demoted to the status of any other ordinary image."

Hagtvedt and colleague Vanessa M. Patrick, a professor of marketing at the University of Houston, conducted three experiments as part of their study. The most prominent featured paintings by the French artist Renoir on wine bottles at a wine tasting.

For one group, the bartender was coached to comment that the bottle labels featured "paintings." All of the wines were judged favorably. Another group was told that the wine bottles featured "people." With the context of "people," the wines were judged based on the appropriateness of what the people were doing in the paintings.

For example, if the label featured guests at a luncheon, the wines were rated higher. But if the painting was of a woman and child playing with toys, it was received less favorably. The significance being that the same paintings did not affect the ratings of the other group who viewed the bottles with a context of "paintings."

Product relevance and context play an important role in communication.

According to the researchers, the study reinforces the importance of product-relevant illustrations. As long as consumers are provided a context of art, it works. But when the context changes, making them aware of product relevance, they no longer view it as art.

"When people view an image as an artwork, it communicates as art and it doesn't matter whether the content fits," said Hagtvedt. "But when they start to focus on the content of the image, such as the people or their activities, then it becomes a product illustration and consumers begin to weigh whether it fits or not."

The two other experiments included illustrations for soap and nail salons. In both cases, the results were replicated. Different images caused different product elevations based on whether the art was viewed as art or illustrations.

Carrying context beyond the study and applying it to different communication channels.

The study may have lessons for other communicators, alluding to the importance of a narrowing topical content. In other words, once consumers identify a blog with a specific context, they may be less receptive to content that falls outside of that context.

wineThis could be true for blogs and social network presence. The further communicators push the content from a central context, the less likely it will be favorably received. For example, a marketing blog hoping to capitalize on Hurricane Irene can attempt to create a thin link between the context and the event. But if viewers consider the hurricane tie-in as an attempt to attract attention, the message is lost.

Likewise, social network streams that gain larger followings generally have a narrower content niche than those who use the social network channel for personal reasons. If the account begins to drift away from its context (e.g., a marketer begins talking about politics), followers will be more likely to tune them out or drop the connection.

If this is true, it makes generalist communication — a broad variety of topics — much more difficult. Whereas niche communication will have an advantage, but only as long as the niche communicator can operate within self-selected limitations.

Friday, August 26

Shocking Civil Rights: Congressman Steve Chabot

Congressman ChobatU.S. Congressman Steve Chabot, his staff, and Cincinnati police officers recently surprised constituents in Ohio by preventing them from filming a town hall meeting where the congressman was speaking (with threat of force). Eric Odom, who recently outlined everything wrong with the incident, rightly points out that the town hall meeting was a public event and held in a public place.

Apparently, Congressman Chabot forgot the oath he took upon entering office. Every congressman is required to take it.

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

Neither Congressman Chabot nor his staff ought to have asked police officers to bar phones that may record events. On the contrary, they should have defended the right of those in the audience to film the event. Likewise, the police officer ought to have considered his oath as they usually include "I will preserve the dignity and respect the rights of all individuals."

Explanations offered by the police officer included that he was doing what he was told and that freedom of the press does not include citizens. It is equally disturbing to think that any police officer, whose duty it is to protect and serve, would not have elected to protect the rights of the those filming the events as opposed to the request of the congressman or his staff.

After all, freedom of the press is not confined to journalists but to anyone who publishes, including citizens who attend public events.

Sure, there is always debate over what constitutes "the press" in the courts. And some people, newspapers included at times, have tried to distinguish themselves above citizens. However, there are several cases where the Supreme Court has already made it clear.

“...necessary to define those categories of newsmen who qualify for the privilege, a questionable procedure in light of the traditional doctrine that liberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer who uses carbon paper or a mimeograph just as much as of the large metropolitan publisher who utilizes the latest photocomposition methods.” (408 U.S. at 704)

Further, as noted by JRPOF, the Supreme Court went on to observe that “freedom of the press is a ‘fundamental personal right . . . not confined to newspapers and periodicals. It necessarily embraces pamphlets and leaflets . . . . The press in its historic connotation comprehends every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.’” (quoting Lovell v. Griffin, 304 U.S. 444, 450, 452 (1938)

Without question, it seems to me, this easily extends to anyone who would film such an event and potentially publish it on YouTube despite dissenters who argue that freedom of the press extends only to a privileged few. In fact, what concerns me about such opinions is that when rights are limited, they cease to become rights. They become privileges, which are significantly different.

Ergo, privileges are granted and subject to being taken away. Whereas rights are different. They are inalienable. Had the founding fathers intended something different, they might have called the first 10 amendments the "Bill Of Privileges." On the contrary, the U.S. Constitution would not have been ratified had individual rights not been enumerated.

Public criticism convinces Congressman Chabot to rethink video.

According to Chabot spokesperson Jamie Schwartz, cameras will be allowed in the future. However, the spokesperson also defended the action, saying that the cameras were taken to protect the privacy of constituents. Using such flawed logic, no public discourse would be allowed to be recorded by anyone.

Likewise, anyone who thinks the blunder is a Republican one ought to think again. Ignorant elected officials from both parties (and other parties for that matter) demonstrated lapses of memory and common sense in the face of criticism. It wasn't long ago that Democratic leaders thought to censor Twitter.

But this is also why it remains vital that people are vigilant to protect their rights over their party affiliations. If we don't, then politicians will likely burn up individual rights from both ends. Good night, good luck, and have a great weekend.

Wednesday, August 24

Thinking Divergent: Divergent Education

ShovelsWe've all been there. (Agency people more than most.) You enter a meeting with a brilliant idea and, inexplicably, some people can't see it. In fact, if the thinking is divergent enough, most of them won't be able to see it. They've been programed not to.

In advertising, it's where all those little rules come from — complete nonsense that calls for the company name to always be in the headline, five bullet points to accompany every ad, or never starting a sentence with "And." Of course they can't see a creative concept beyond the rules they've added to their road map of success.

Most of them have had divergent thinking trained out of them years ago. And that's a problem not only for them, but for our children. Right. The same symptom that prevents some clients from buying a campaign or an investor failing to find the next Apple, is the same challenge being faced in education. Most students are being taught reactive regurgitation.

Reactive regurgitation, better known as rote memorization, still has mainstream appeal in a world that requires more and more divergent thinking for success. For evidence, you only need to look at some of the most successful companies created in the last 20 years. Almost all of them were created with divergent thinking — user interfaces for computers, touch screen phones, search engines, digital newspapers, expensive coffee, social networks, shoes you can't even try on before you buy them.

There are hundreds of them. And we celebrate most of them. We celebrate them because they are the most unlikely success stories, even if we still apply the same rote rules to dismiss others who have something equally unique all over again.

The model of success is programmed to fail.

Sometimes we can't help it. Most of us have been programmed to approach life much like our education was laid out for us — reactive regurgitation, which is best described as a singular unified reaction to something on sight.

For example, much like the video suggests, baby boomers were educated to believe that a college degree ensured employment. Most of us know it helps, especially with organizations that require them in order to minimize the number of applicants. But degrees are not guarantees. Nothing is guaranteed, even if the political climate sometimes suggests citizens might expect this or that. Besides, given the right circumstances, anyone can pursue a degree. Equally true, anyone can come up with an original idea.

But we don't want to believe that, do we? From the way most people buy and sell stocks (with the rise and fall of the market) and the expectations placed on instructors at a university (kids want bullet lists to memorize) to the way politics is boiled down into two equally unpalatable choices (vote on this or that) and even people's own sense of self-worth as it is attached to various labels (smart or dumb and big company or little company and startup or blue chip) — all of it can be destructed into rote theories that imprison people to constructs from the 1800s.

And for whatever reason, we want to believe them even if history continually proves that the opposite is true. We were programmed, and most of us want to pass this programming on to our kids.

A model for success might is just as likely to be no model.

What I like best from the presentation of Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned education and creativity expert and recipient of the RSA's Benjamin Franklin Award, is that he suggests we reverse the assembly line mentality of the current system and begin to pay attention to nurturing individual potentials. Maybe, he suggests, instead of teaching kids to see one possible answer, we teach them to see many possible answers — the same kind of thinking that has driven us forward as civilizations.

Ergo, Einstein could have never conceived the theory of relativity by simply following the groundwork laid down before him. Van Gogh would have never become a celebrated artist had he only colored inside the lines. Apple would have never turned a corner if it had believed that the touch screen was an unobtainable dream.

But even more importantly for children, such divergent thinking is vital for future success. Why? Because such thinking provides an opportunity to excel in not only the thing you have learned or done, but anything we happen to approach. It removes the answer "I can't" from our vocabulary.

Where I might add on to Robinson's thinking is that it is not just our education system that abandons divergent thinking. Entertainment choices do much the same. Gamers are rewarded for mastering rote memorization, with success related to perfecting what worked last time. Cable programming might appear to be more diverse with 1,000 channels, but children are equally likely to settle on fewer shows than their predecessors because they can record every episode and watch them all over again and again. The sameness is almost startling; and they are rewarded for it.

If we want to break away from our current trajectory, both teachers and parents might start rethinking education. Rather than pushing children down the path of sameness, we might be better off pulling them up the path they've already chosen (and away from entertainment designed to hypnotize them). But then again, that in itself is probably too divergent for most people. Maybe.

Monday, August 22

Rethinking Engagement: Facebook

FacebookMichael Scissons' recent column about the 22 percent drop in Facebook engagement between consumers and brands ought to be a wake-up call. Brand engagement isn't always sustainable because most brands are thin topics.

And as Scissons points out, the problem isn't very likely to be Facebook. It's the pages themselves.

Most brands are tired, driven by managers who either aren't engaged themselves or try to force engagement on others. Some have told me that they feel like they have to. If they can't demonstrate a steadily increasing number of customers jumping through hoops, their bosses or accounts start to think that they are failing or, more commonly, something else is.

How to maintain engagement without over communicating.

When engagement falters, chances are the people who liked it are suffering from brand fatigue. They might have brand fatigue because of under or over communication. And good network managers ought not to sweat it.

It's during these slower times that managers can reassess what they are doing and whether it is still aligned with the mission of the company and stated objectives of the network presence. They might also think like humans too.

Social media has an oddity about it in that even those people who play at calling for human businesses tend to forget they too are human. They start thinking of themselves as tribal leaders, experimenters, or even shepherds. They see their jobs like playing a video game, one that requires them to rack up numbers that no longer have names like Bill and Ted and Sally and Hannah. Instead, they have a bunch of followers, fans, or whatever labels happen to be assigned to their circles.

If you've ever worked in social media, you know it's true. But you can see it as a consumer too. If the brand thought of you as Bill and Ted and Sally and Hannah, then they would already know how engaged you may or may not be. They might appreciate that talking about toothpaste isn't an activity you intend to do daily. And you can't bring yourself to like every post or comment and make a purchase during every sales event. It's just not humanly possible.

How to rethink engagement on consumer terms.

Good network managers don't seem to have as many challenges. There are a number of pages that almost always seem like they are on a steady incline in all areas — reach, engagement, and promotion. Generally, these are managers who appreciate engagement and influence aren't measured by the number of likes, shares, or retweets.

Engagement is a two-way street — like real friends with mutual interests. Even if you don't see them for months, you can always pick up where you left off as if nothing ever happened. Ergo, we might "like" the page of a hotel before we stay there but don't need engagement from such a page as much as we just want to know it still exists the next time we fly into the same town. Maybe engagement sometimes simply means you're easy to find when you're needed.

Friday, August 19

Walking Off: Christine O'Donnell Bails On CNN

Christine O'DonnellAs difficult as it is to put politics aside on political topics, they still make for great public relations puzzles. This one is offered up by Christine O'Donnell, who bailed on her CNN book interview after Piers Morgan asked the former Delaware Senate candidate her views about gay marriage.

To be fair to O'Donnell, despite Morgan's apparent politeness in the clip, the interview was more aggressive than most people know. Morgan had previously played clips from O'Donnell's past, including one where she once said she dabbled in witchcraft. He also brought up the MTV "masturbation sin" episode, priming her to become more emotional before moving in for a kill.

From CNN's point of view, raising questions about witchcraft, masturbation, and gay marriage, are "fair" because O'Donnell discusses religion in her book. (Besides, Morgan asks every Republican that question, recently Gov. Chris Christie and Mitt Romney.) On the other hand, it also suggests an agenda. Discrediting O'Donnell and others makes for great entertainment.

The real life reactions to this clip are generally mixed. In reading the comments piled on various media outlets covering the story, people are all over the map. Some will misconstrue this as a win for O'Donnell because enough conservatives and independents give her a majority on the walk off. Here's a rough summation of where people landed.

People with liberal leanings say it reinforces their belief that the Tea Party favorites are nut jobs. People with fiscally conservative leanings say that it's indicative of a liberal media afraid to talk about fiscal policy. And neocon Republicans, which are different from Tea Partiers, mostly lament that this illustrates why such personalities embarrass them.

Independents on the other hand are largely split, with varied opinions that are all underscored by a message that the media and politicians might wake up to — they actually want to talk about fiscal policy and the economy as opposed to fringe topics. Ergo, they are growing increasingly restless over polarizing social issues when the economy is in the foreground.

Still, that only provides background for the story and a thumbnail sketch on how people are reacting. Let's talk about the truth.

Is there ever a good time to walk off an interview?

Yes, but this wasn't one of those times. The public relations handlers botched it. O'Donnell obviously wasn't prepared, given that the line of questions Morgan had prepared were exactly what ought to have been anticipated by her publicist.

More importantly, there was a better counterpoint for O'Donnell, one that I think might have resonated with all parties. It goes something like this ...

"With all respect, Mr. Morgan, I think you just touched on exactly what is wrong with the state of our country today. People are unemployed, many are losing their homes, and the declining stock market is threatening retirement for millions. Yet, you want to talk about religion, masturbation, and sexual orientation. I think your priorities are confused. I wrote a book that is largely about fiscal policy and I think your viewers might agree that religion, masturbation, and sexual orientation — while important at times — take a back seat to knowing whether you are going to put food on the table tomorrow."

Anything Morgan would have pressed on after a statement like that, would have seemed foolish and trivial. But instead, her handlers prompted her to end the interview, with one of them even stepping in front of the camera. It's hard to take seriously.

The state of media relations and on-air interviews today.

The facts of media engagement are among the simplest, yet amazingly difficult, to master. While the media is allowed to ask any questions they want (even if some pretend agreement was reached prior to the show), interviewees are also allowed to circle back to whatever they want to talk about, provided they do so with tact. Obviously, no one has taught O'Donnell how to do it.

Likewise, while media personalities are allowed to ask the same question over and over, every interviewee ought to know that media personalities look foolish each time they ask the same question. In other words, let them ask and ask, at their own peril.

Interestingly enough, O'Donnell ought to have the gay marriage question down, whatever her views are. My guess is that she is soft on the issue because it rubs against four conflicting moral codes among four different types of Tea Party sympathizers and, possibly, two conflicting values of her own — a government that stays out of other people's personal business and preserving the definition of marriage according to religious beliefs.

Personal feelings or thoughts aside, I think the whole gay marriage question ought to be scrubbed. There are civil unions and religious unions. The state can neither bar nor force any church to adopt or prevent same sex marriages without any such law (either way) being an affront to the First Amendment. Maybe O'Donnell should have said that instead of catering to what she "thinks" her crowd wants to hear.

She might be surprised how people would respond if someone would just take the time to apply reason. And the media might be surprised too, if they would stop catering to their own sensational reporting styles and look at it objectively.

Incidentally, I did ask Piers Morgan where he stands on gay marriage via Twitter. And despite making himself part of the story, he declined to answer.

Wednesday, August 17

Amending IPOs: Does Groupon Really Work?

GrouponJust hours after the Wall Street Journal was reveling over the Groupon IPO last week, the unexpected happened. The "fastest-growing company in the history of mankind" had some wind knocked out of its sails over odd accounting. There's more to the story than record revenues.

It was also able to sustain its rapid sales growth, bringing in $878 million in net revenue, a quarterly increase of 36 percent. High expenses, however, resulted in an operating loss of $102.5 million in the second quarter. — Forbes

Most people know that the day deal site is big on marketing. It spent $165.2 on online marketing to gain new subscribers last quarter, which is lower than the $179.9 million it spent the previous quarter. Where people need to look under the hood is exactly what marketers talk about on a regular basis — what's the marketing ROI and how many people need to manage it.

Straight math might suggest that the company makes $4 for every $1 of marketing. However, that doesn't necessarily account for everything else — staff, consultants, and time-to-creation. Those are the numbers you might want to look at, and then you might wonder about some other things too. It would be a shame to discover Groupon is a company that loses even $.01 for every dollar it spends. Because if that were true, then the company is only growing by continually spending ahead of itself.

Groupon is a good idea, but advertisers need restraint.

There is plenty of truth to the old adage that everything is okay in moderation. A glass of wine with a meal, for example, can even be healthy. Ten bottles, not so much, but only because it comes with the hangover. And that's the question, isn't it? What happens when the party ends?

Personally, I know many social media pros who are down on Groupon. I'm not one of them, but I have expressed some caution. It's has nothing to do with Groupon as much as it has something to do with marketing.

Companies that rely too much on coupons and fire sales can create some unusual problems unless they know what they are doing. And unfortunately, not all companies know what they are doing. What problems?

Sometimes, wildly successful campaigns can hurt you too.

If you have ever worked with a restaurant (or a retail establishment), you might might be familiar with the story. If a modestly successful business suddenly has a surge that overpowers staff on hand, the experience changes significantly.

Not only does the restaurant suffer in terms of quality food and customer service, but people might also be turned away — except one customer, who happens to be a reviewer ordering the one dish that you're suddenly out of. To make matters worse, if the coupon counts exceed regular patrons, the revenues might look good, but the company could still take a loss.

The same holds true for non-restaurants too. When demand outpaces supply, those turned away may never come back. When discounts become the norm, people stop buying until the next deal. When one-time buyers flood the space, loyalists are accidentally pushed aside. When the experience isn't perfect, that's the day the reviewers show up. And when you have a math error, revenue records can carry a negative profit.

The best coupon campaigns are those with objectives that go beyond immediate sales. Product introductions, short-term, reason-specific campaigns (back to school, for example), or short-term engagements (special guest or limited time product) can help maximize exposure and market penetration, especially while working in conjunction with a public relations and/or social media campaign. And, always anticipate a response greater than expected, even if it never happens, and never take a loss on the offering.

So what about Groupon? It really depends. If Groupon is built on companies taking losses with impossibly attractive offers that are fueled by advertising at a loss for greater reach, there might be a pretty big problem. But if Groupon is everything that it says it is, short of creative accounting, then that might make sense for some. What are your thoughts about Groupon?

Monday, August 15

Publishing Temptations: Three Social Media Content Evils

Content StrategyAlthough some media companies are still struggling with the transition from print to digital, others are doing fine (even if a few might be fine for the wrong reasons). Eventually, the shakedown will leave us with leaner media companies (many specialized in affirmation opinion), probably made up of a mix between transitioned print and digital upstarts.

It's anyone's guess what the quality will be like, but it might be good enough, maybe. That depends on each publisher specifically and when the public eventually learns objective journalism does have value after all. In the meantime, any short term gains by some publishers might be tempered with a long-term outlook. It seems to me media outlets that jump on the most popular publisher trends are borrowing against their future reputations, bloggers too.

Three Content Creator Evils To Avoid As A Publisher.

• Trending Content Stories. While it's always a good idea to track social media trends to discover what topics people are interested in, publishers are better served in being vigilant in balancing their content. After all, publishing is not public relations even if it feels that way at times.

Specifically, some publishers have adapted what it generally considered a marketing or public relations tactic. They check the topical trends and then find something — anything — to write about that matches those trends regardless of how thin those connections might be.

Some publishers even make trend lists and then burp them out to all their writers, screaming that they need more stories on these popular topics. So, for example, if the Bronx Zoo has a lost cobra, they instruct their journalists to pile on stories about snakes — pushing anything important down and elevating the mundane. It's why the media sometimes feels dubbed down.

• Wrapper Content Marketing. While it has always existed, wrapper content has made significant gains in recent years. This technique isn't audience driven as much as it is advertiser driven.

Specifically, some publishers pick up advertisers and then look for content that is loosely or overtly connected to the product that the company wants to peddle. Marketers and social media pros do this all the time, but it begins to become creepy when third-party publishers jump into the space too.

For example, let's say you publish communication content and an advertiser knocks on your door with a new travel bag. So, you drop the story you planned to do about crisis communication and start writing the story about how much you love the bag, wrapped up nicely with five travel tips for busy professionals. Sure, this works well enough for marketing (we expect to see travel tips on an airline's blog from time to time), but one would hope publishers respect their readers more than writing advertorials.

• Automated Content Pushes. While there is nothing wrong with sharing content across multiple networks, it's always a good idea to practice some self-restraint. After all, if exposure is overshadowing quality in terms of priorities, then the content probably isn't worth sharing.

Specifically, some publishers blast everything they say in one place to every place they have a presence. Their Facebook page has the same content as their Twitter page, which now mirrors their Google+ page, etc. While a certain amount of sharing and duplication is expected, not every story, comment, or thought needs to be threaded everywhere.

The reality is that different networks respond differently to different content and almost every network is sensitive to how it is presented. After sharing stories with primary networks, pick and choose what might best fit where and how to present it. (For example, this story would be mostly senseless to share on Reddit, so I won't put it there. But if I did, the title would have to be something like 'hungry dog eats a village.')

Some marketers tell me I'm silly for not sharing every story everywhere, especially those that know my networks consist of mostly different people. I don't worry about that too much. I share where it makes sense, and if someone else (like a reader) thinks it will fit better elsewhere, then they might be willing to share it instead. I think that's cool, because it places engagement over broadcast.

Friday, August 12

Creating Controversy: Sometimes PR Makes Its Own

Public RelationsLike many public relations firms, Kentucky-based Guthrie/Mayes seemed to have sound advice. If your county board of education had suffered a soap operatic firing of a superintendent and less than stellar hiring of a new one, you might consider doing something to manage your public image.

Unfortunately, the public relations firm didn't anticipate that their hiring — at $215 an hour, or up to $20,000 for three months' work — would cause equal friction for the Jefferson County Board of Education, which already staffs communication and public relations professionals with a collective salary of almost $1 million per year, according to WLKY.

So far, the advice — speak with a singular message or not at all — isn't working. WLKY took exception to only one board member answering their call (only to say she wouldn't talk about the issue and hung up). The PIO for the board did try to answer the question. She claimed that the school district communication team has a conflict, working for the board and the district.

The chairman of the board, however, refuted the claim. They work together with the communication department all the time.

This time the public has a point. They needn't fund public relations for elected officials.

The Courier-Journal called it right. Elected board members are obligated to be responsive to the voters and are not entitled to public image makeovers simply to look better for re-election.

What they seem to need is more internal communication among each other, more honesty in the decisions they make, and more appreciation for the people who elect them without fear of "confusing them." At minimum, if they want to have a more unified voice, then they ought to be deferring calls to their chairman unless the issue has individual viewpoints. And if he's not up to the challenge, find someone who is.

In fact, that is what the public relations firm correctly advised. But where the public relations firm was wrong was in advising them to hush up over an issue that area residents seem impassioned about. And considering at least one board member or staff member is leaking the firm's advice to the media, it clearly seems they aren't improving relations as much as they are becoming fodder for controversy.

Some solutions for a fractured board, much more valuable than a muzzle.

Having done considerable work for various public entities as an outside consultant, there are times when overburdened combination staffs need assistance or advice on special projects or in specific situations. However, massaging the messages from the Jefferson County Board of Education doesn't seem to be one of them although the board members might seek independent coaching. As individuals, they obviously know how to undermine their own efforts.

Here's some free advice. Sit down and talk about the issues. When the board decisions are unanimous, let the media know and defer to the chairman. When they are not, meet both obligations by talking to the media about what the board has decided, and why (although in the minority) you felt differently without the rhetoric. Such action might not always result in a quiet and complacent public, but at least you'll be able to sleep at night, knowing that you're being honest.

This is probably the advice the district's communication team could have provided. But given the answer, it seems they could have used that advice themselves. Now, about how much that district ought to be spending on public relations ...

Wednesday, August 10

Studying Psychology: Aversion Training For Kids?

ClockworkAs crazy as it sounds, some psychologists are jumping on the fright makes right band wagon. According to a study published in Health Psychology (as highlighted in a weight loss article), showing kids photos of obese people and arterial diseases for 30 minutes helps reduce the urge to eat sweets and foods that are fattening.

Are you kidding me?

Looking at arterial diseases for 30 minutes will suppress anyone's appetite to eat anything. Besides, some of us saw the movie version of this study. A Clockwork Orange was produced in 1971, starring Malcolm McDowell as a protagonist who is "programmed" to detest violence by being subjected to graphically violent films, eventually conditioning him to suffer crippling bouts of nausea at the mere thought of violence. (The book came out in 1962.)

The study hints at the same thing, except the villain in this case isn't violence as much as it might be a Hostess cupcake.

Teach Reason Over Aversion.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, David Wessel had some harsh words about where America is today, saying the "deeper issue and root cause of our malaise is the broken U.S. educational model that is producing bloated people with bloated egos and senses of entitlement, broken values, a broken work ethic and an intellectual incompetence with which to think and innovate."

I'm not sharing Wessel's words to give more attention to the blight within his premise, even if some of it touches on truth. I'm including it because it represents the polar opposite of the study. Whereas the study suggests America's woes might be handled though aversion programming, Wessel is taking a (albeit heavy handed) approach that we might teach deductive reasoning, critical thinking skills, and personal responsibility. One looks to curb a symptom; the other looks toward fixing the cause.

Of course, our society doesn't always want reason. Ask any marketer today that is hell-bent on deciphering "influence." They don't want people to make the best decisions; they want go head to head with competitors and let the best "influencer" win. Never mind the facts.

In some cases, it goes well beyond marketers. There are plenty of political parties and institutions and organizations that want to do the same. They don't want people to make educated choices but rather to be comfortable in the leadership's ability to influence its way out of everything. So much so, some people are studying how do it, regardless of the consequence.

What's The Difference?

Aversion programming and fear marketing teach children rote memorization that may lead to equally harmful eating disorders. To avoid those, you have to teach your children to make proper choices about what to eat using reason and responsibility.

cherriesPersonally, I never worry about what my kids eat or don't eat. I guide them toward making healthier choices that will eventually turn into making better choices as adults (I hope). That means before they can have the pudding, they have to eat their meat. Or more specifically, despite how fun it is to drop in a Pink Floyd reference, fruit before some other snack.

By asking them to eat fruit first, they often find the apple or orange or peach or plum satisfies their craving for something sweet or fills the small empty feeling they might have in the late afternoon (without spoiling dinner). This indirectly reminds them that fruit is good, tasty, filling, healthy, and makes you feel good without feeling guilty. At the same time, it does't discourage them from looking at a cookie and feeling guilty or as the inspiring study suggests — aversion.

Nowadays, my kids have even passed on offers of candy in favor of fruit if it's available, not because they have to but because they want to. Imagine that. And I never had to show them pictures of diseases and unhealthy people.

Marketing might learn a lesson here too. If you win the influence game, you win a customer for a day. If you truly have the better product and can deliver on your brand promise, you will win a customer for life. People don't have to be frightened. Let the politicos keep that one to themselves.

Monday, August 8

Recharging: How Self-Engagement Helps

Don't WorryWorry Is Like Interest Paid In Advance On A Debt That Never Comes Due. — The Spanish Prisoner

While also attributed to Will Rogers, the quote was reintroduced in the 1997 suspense film The Spanish Prisoner. We might even go one step further by saying it is interest paid on money you never borrowed. And even so, it's also an increasingly common prognosis for Americans.

The only thing bigger than the American debt is the amount of worry that has been levied on its people by politicians, news media, propaganda shills, and everyone else who wants to attract attention. Fear marketing has become the singular biggest influencer of all time.

Looking at the most popular stories parlayed into major news headlines — child abductions, governmental collapse, pandemics, debt default, stock shocks, climate change, health care crisis, economic ruin — it's a wonder more people aren't depressed. By comparison, the children of the 1950s and 1960s felt safer clamoring under desks in preparation for a nuclear war.

That's not to say all these other issues aren't important. Remaining vigilant against such threats can be prudent. But being paralyzed by them is not. Most of the worries people embrace are issues they can do nothing about on the grand scale.

Sure, they can take steps on a small scale: safeguarding children, living within their means, encouraging companies to be green in practice and not public relations, and so on. But beyond what can be done on the small scale, none of these issues are worth the worry. Most are well beyond our control, with the zombie apocalypse outstripping Y2K in eventual likeness.

One small study that reaches further than its intent.

Last week David H. Rosmarin of the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital released a study that suggested people who trust in a benevolent God tend to worry less and are more tolerant than those who mistrust an indifferent or punishing God.

At a glance the sampling sizes seemed rather small, but there is something to take away from it regardless. While Rosmarin suggests several applications for his findings, it might be worthwhile to consider something else too. Those people who are more tolerant and less prone to worry are also more comfortable letting the world run and then adapting the best they can.

Whether you accomplish that by placing faith in God or a god or simply recognizing that as individuals we are pretty small specks on a planet hurling itself around a sun that is hurling itself around a galaxy that is hurling itself around a universe, it works out the same. Don't take on worries that you have no control over. Stick to what you can do. Take action, not worrisome non-action.

"What would you do if you weren't afraid?"

For all the emphasis by the media and other interested parties peddling fear, take some time to turn it off and do something you can do. Or, to illustrate with an old proverb Chinese farmers used to say — forget about the emperor and get down to milking cows. You might be surprised to discover how much cooking a challenging dinner, painting miniature figures, working out, or choosing some other engaging activity can do for your head.

For even that brief period of time, as long as you can focus on whatever task you've picked up without distractions from social networks or the outside world, chances are that all those worries — most of which you can only do a little about — will slip away. And, even better, there is no risk of a hangover (although I understand some people pour on to supplant this intent too).

It's especially critical for creative types to unplug or become otherwise self-engaged for a few hours a day. If you allow too many voices and worries and calls for alarm in your head, you won't hear those sparks of inspiration. So let those who took on the debt worry about how to pay it back for awhile. It's their job for as long as we let them keep it.

The comments are yours. If you have any tips and tricks you use to tune out and then tune back into things closer to home, I'd love to know. They might make a worthwhile post all on their own.

Friday, August 5

Minimizing Test Variables: For Better Marketing

marketing testsWhile larger marketing campaigns might include varied offers (e.g., A, B, C) relatively few marketers attempt to use scientific models to conduct marketing research. If they did, they would have clearer picture of consumers, especially online consumer groups or communities.

So why don't they? The most common reason is time, as any effective study group only tests for one variable at a time. Since most marketers do not have patience for true scientific models, they tend to test for multiple measures at one time or split variables (A, B, C) among demographics that they hypothesize are more likely to respond favorably to each variable.

An historic case study regarding mixed variables.

Unfortunately, mixing variables can have adverse or disastrous results. Probably one of the most famous accounts is tied to a 1996 McDonald's campaign, which became one of the most expensive marketing flops in history. You can find some background about the campaign on Wikipedia or a reference to it at The New York Times. But it's not the whole story.

Prior to the launch of the Arch Deluxe, McDonald's had simultaneously launched various deluxe versions of its burger across the United States — including one I was directly involved with. Out West, there was no Arch Deluxe (at least, not before the national rollout of the Arch). McDonald's had marketed the California Deluxe, which was also an adult burger with different ingredients.

California DeluxeThere were other regions with variations too. If memory serves me right, there were six regions (but I could be wrong here). And as much as the Arch Deluxe was test marketed in the Northeast, the California Deluxe was test marketed in primarily the West Coast.

Each test area also had localized campaigns, created by regional advertising agencies to market the burger. And the winner, determined by total sales, would be the one McDonald's would pick for a national rollout. The Arch Deluxe won, and none of the others were even mentioned again.

On the surface, it seemed to someone that the test market idea was a solid marketing approach. Until, of course, you consider the variables: different products, marketed to different test markets with different concentrations of population, using different messages (within McDonad's mandatories). Add it all up and the marketing study they created measured nothing, even though it had convinced McDonad's to invest $200 million into the campaign.

As a point of interest, the California Deluxe rivaled Big Mac sales in its test markets. But the smaller sampling size predetermined that the better burger was doomed out of the starting block.

A quick take on developing a better test market model, using the historic case study.

McDonald's could have created a different test model, but the timing to execute the campaign would have taken significantly longer. It could have introduced three burgers in one test market with a singular campaign asking people to choose. It could have rolled out one burger at a time in several areas across the United States. Or, well, any number of ways with an emphasis on minimizing variables.

It's one of the lessons marketers (and bloggers for that matter) would be well served to apply. In science, medicine, or psychology, for example, researchers generally create an experimental group (one receiving an independent variable) and a control group (one receiving a similar experimental situation, but without the variable), with the participants randomly assigned.

applesProvided there is no other tampering, the variable could be anything. It could be two products, one with an "improved feature." It could be the same product, with different creative campaigns. It could be a specific incitement offer. It could be the same everything, but tested in two or more different test markets. Or maybe two different price points. And so on and so forth.

In terms of social media, for example, narrowing the variable can help marketers determine what content different social networks respond to or the style of communication. (Managing several social programs, we've seen differences in each network community emerge over several months.)

The point is to narrow the measurable variables, which increases the reliability (the ability to get the same results in successive studies) and validity (the ability to measure what you want to measure). The benefit is increasing the return on investment by running continuous tests until patterns emerge.

In the case of the Deluxe debacle, for example, they might have found that people in the Northeast also preferred the California Deluxe (or one of the others) over the Arch Deluxe too. But ironically, no one will ever know. Instead, all they learned was the Arch Deluxe could not support itself nationwide.

Wednesday, August 3

Trusting Strangers: The Influential Collective

Barfly AdviceWhile the findings won't send shockwaves through social media, Skyscanner recently released a study that says 34 percent of all travelers have made a decision to visit a destination suggested by someone they only 'know' online. The study frames up the finding as evidence that 'virtual strangers' are growing increasingly influential.

While we might argue that people you become familiar with online are no more strangers than the people next door (number 10), Skyscanner says that the survey goes one step further — people are placing their trust in the anonymous nature of many travel sites and online review forums rather than their friends, who they don't want to hold accountable for bad decisions. (This finding also alludes to knowing "influencers" as not as important as anonymous reviewers.)

"We are increasingly adventurous as a nation, but part of us always wants reassurance that we have made the right choices," said Sam Baldwin, editor for Skyscanner Travel. " Social media helps people to extend their research and have more confidence in the decisions they make."

According to Bladwin, more than 13 percent of people are most worried about whether or not they have made the best decision online. Reviews, even anonymous, help increase their confidence. In fact, online travel recommendations are important to 8 of 10 people surveyed from a pool of 800 travelers.

Along with what people say about a place, attraction, or designation, the survey also found that photos are even more influential than recommendations. More than 21 percent of respondents claim to have made the decision to visit a location based on a picture seen on the photo-sharing site alone. This falls in line with another survey conducted by Skycanner that found more than 50 percent of travelers have made a decision based on Facebook photos posted by friends.

Travelers are also very likely to "like" or "follow" a place they will visit or have visited on a social network (56 percent) and smart phones are a leading tool (41 percent) to help them make restaurant, bar, and beach decisions after they arrive. No matter how you frame it, the survey demonstrates how important social media has become to consumers, especially when it comes travel, even if it is only a tool to help them find peace of mind.

Monday, August 1

Turning 20: Copywrite, Ink.

Copywrite, Ink.Copywrite, Ink. turns 20 in August. To put that in perspective, the creative computer of choice was a monochrome Mac Classic, preferably one with a flying toasters screen saver installed. Nirvana's Nevermind, led by the hit single "Smells Like Teen Spirit," became the most popular U.S. album of the year. And Tim Berners-Less had just announced the World Wide Web project.

The Cold War was over. The United States liberated Kuwait, and we entered a recession. Generation Xers were mostly pissed off.

I had already earned some agency experience. I worked at an agency and public utility while in college and living in Los Angeles and Reno. But even before I knew there was a communication field, I had done some freelance work right out of high school.

Ten Things You Might Learn After 20 Years With A Communication Firm.

1. People Are People. In working with, talking to, and interviewing some of the most prominent, influential, and wealthy individuals in the world and having the distinct pleasure of interviewing people whom others would consider nobodies, you eventually learn there is no difference between them. Both have invaluable insights and near-debilitating insecurities. The only time class, wealth, and status make a difference is when people allow their own sense of proportion to overshadow who they are, and that is a different problem all together. Treat people equally.

2. Own Every Mistake. Inevitability, you will meet business owners who have been taken advantage of or otherwise harmed by investors, clients, contractors, and employees. The truth is that every mistake directly links to the top, either in the decisions they make or the people they delegate those decisions to. More importantly, business isn't a science, which means there will be mistakes. Make them, own them, learn from them, and forgive them. You can't learn from mistakes you don't own.

3. Talk Is Cheap. Until it is written in a contract or cashed at the bank, promises are as tangible as the wind. Clients who promise the moon and the stars in exchange for breaks on the front end are disingenuous or delusional. The lesson here is simple enough. Treat those promises for what they are — an investment in someone else's business, budget, or career if they are a marketing manager — as much as your own exploration into an opportunity. Anything else is talk.

4. Everything Is Temporary. Companies grow, shrink, and change all the time. They will win, lose, rise, decline, and rise again. Never place too much emphasis on chasing after or catering to choice accounts at the expense of all other clients. The average account will stay with a good firm for four years (our average is significantly longer). Firms that feel secure are generally one change away from losing the account. It pays to value the time you have with an account, but not worship it.

5. Everyone Is Valuable. Everyone on your team is valuable. It doesn't matter who they are or what they do: volunteer, freelance, part time, full time. The person who cleans the office is just as important as the person who lands the account. Likewise, employees are valuable but they are hardly invaluable. Much like most accounts do not stay with one firm forever, neither do employees. Make the most of the time you have them aboard.

6. Offices Are Overrated. While some professionals excel in offices and it's worthwhile to maintain them from time to time, they aren't necessary for the success of a communication firm and can sometimes be a liability in terms of overhead. For anyone working out of a home office, recognize the only people who frown on it don't have enough experience to know that many journalists, musicians, producers, radio talk show hosts, business people, investors, executives, and like-minded professionals do most of their work from home offices. Do what works for you for now.

7. Planning Is Critical. Persistence and perseverance alone won't ensure survivability. After a firm becomes solvent, look to create contingency plans. Most agencies and firms fail, specifically, because their operations are based exclusively on accounts, which requires them to hire and lay off based on those accounts. Several agencies shuttered up in the last few years because of it, especially those tied to specific industries. Diversify industries, locations, and revenue strategies. Keep the faith for the best while planning for the worst.

8. Give Back, Not In. One of the smartest things any firm can do is align with nonprofits, giving them the opportunity to make new connections as well as support their community. On the flip side, giving back does not mean giving in or fooling yourself into believing you have ownership. Recognize when any commitment begins to take a negative turn and then walk away. Politics is a sure indicator. Business owners don't have time for it, whether it's a nonprofit or professional organization and participation can adversely affect all those connections when board leaders or executives split the group.

9. Politics Is Baloney. Firms need to be vigilant in keeping pace with politics to prevent unneeded regulations, but never let politics dictate the company's mission, vision, or values. Politics is largely a different world in that success has everything to with electability and almost nothing to do with accountability. Besides, any wagon you hitch your star to is only as good as the next election. Other than making a few contributions, it's best to stay as far away from it as possible and keep most opinions close to the vest. The person you insult over political differences could have been your client.

10. Social Media Is Social. When you make connections online, they are just as valuable as any you make offline. And because of this, they deserve the same reverence. Some communication professionals try to separate the two, but only because they have yet to learn that some of the best and brightest connections you make will never be tied to geography. They're not. It ties directly back into #1 above — if class, wealth, and status are meaningless, how you meet someone is even more so.

There are dozens more than those I've listed here, but they came to mind. So what's next? Nobody really knows the lessons they might learn along the way except for the ones they need to learn. For right now, we're satisfied working with two startups on their near-term launches, developing our alternative review site, and nurturing relationships with select clients, colleagues, and friends (maybe you too). And then, of course, there are a few personal projects always simmering. Other than that, we're grateful (and I'm grateful) that Copywrite, Ink. has crossed the 20-year mark.

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