Monday, October 31

Seeking Stability: Consumers

With many economies still struggling to find a foothold toward recovery, Americans are looking for increased stability and security in their lives — even if they have to make it up. One recent study conducted by Zillow discovered that as many as 42 percent of prospective home buyers believe that homes typically appreciate by seven percent a year.

Historically, home values in a normal market appreciate by 2-5 percent a year. And during the last five years, home prices have been extremely volatile with many homeowners having upside-down mortgages, owing more on the house than its current valuation.

Zillow uncovers where homebuyers are confused. 

• 41 percent think they are required to buy private mortgage insurance (PMI) regardless of their down payment. PMI is typically required only when buyers put down less than 20 percent.

• 56 percent confuse appraisals and inspections, with most believing that appraisals determine whether or not a home is in good condition.

• 37 percent believe that homeowner's insurance is optional and do not budget it into their monthly payments. In reality, lenders require that borrowers purchase homeowner's insurance that protects the lender more than the home buyer.

"It's troubling that we're still in the midst of one of the worst housing recessions in history," said Dr. Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow. "And yet, prospective buyers continue to have such high expectations for home value appreciation."

Upbeat about home appreciation, but downbeat on the economy.

According to another poll, this one conducted by Harris Interactive, 67 percent of Americans rate the job market as bad in their region of the nation. Only nine percent would rate it as good.

Currently, Southerners seem to be more optimistic (62 percent say the economy is bad) and Westerners less optimistic (74 percent say the economy is bad). When asked what would help increase jobs in the United States, 44 percent said cutting government spending and 40 percent said cutting taxes for Americans.

Only 12 percent believe more government spending would increase jobs. While Harris noted some partisan differences, only 29 percent of Democrats believe that more government spending will increase jobs. Almost 22 percent of respondents said nothing will increase jobs.

Retailers are not convinced there will be an economic recovery either. The Journal of Commerce/PIERS reported that toy imports were cut nine percent, which indicates that retailers are being especially cautious. Most toy imports (82 percent) come from China.

What marketers and employers could do to step up. 

A few weeks ago, we alluded that the best economic recovery could be spurred by a new concept of economy. Customers are looking for more meaningful purchases (quality over quantity) and stable working conditions (protective sentiment). This may require companies to consider strategies that strengthen internal communication (employee morale) and honest, up front communication and customer service (external communication).

The worst moves that companies can make are sweeping changes or over promising and under delivering. Consumers and employees are not in the mood, and their level of frustration is likely to materialize in national protests or public relations nightmares for companies that raise fees or implement sweeping service changes (unless they are truly looking out for the consumer).

Friday, October 28

Rediscovering Influence: The Butterfly Effect

A few months ago, I was introduced to one of my favorite websites ever. It's a site loaded with ideas.

It represents the best of what the Internet can do. It brings people together — those with great ideas and those who want to see great ideas succeed. They are great ideas. Not all of them; enough of them.

In fact, I reviewed it on Liquid [Hip]. And while Kickstarter wasn't rated because we ran the review as a Good Will pick, I would have rated it a perfect 10. I've only ever done that one other time since we started.

It seems to me that Kickstarter represents the best of what the Internet can do. Almost every day, someone pitches an idea that influences and inspires others to share their story, dream, and project. The artists who submit their side projects are influential, even those who have no presence on the Internet (today).

So are the people who support them. In fact, the people who support these artists are more influential than they will ever know. The project they help fund today can launch a company, a career, a revolution.

The truth is we just don't know. A small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences at a later state. It's called the butterfly effect, and taken from a greater chaos theory.

The Quest For Tangible Online Influence. 

In much the same way, DonorsChoose is like Kickstarter. It brings people together too.

In this case, teachers submit requests based on the needs of their students. Supporters donate funds, which are then used to purchase the necessary supplies.

One recent example was a teacher who had an idea that he could do a better job teaching his students science and how to grow food if only they could test the soil for optimal growth. Once they had the soil test kits, they would have a better understanding of how to grow plants like tomatoes and squash.

The project was funded. And while there is no way to really know, any number of those students might translate what they learn from this project into lifelong skill sets, inspiring them to become teachers, scientists, agricultural engineers, or maybe something that we can't imagine today — professions that could make their communities, states, or even the world a better place to live.

The Distraction Of Online Vanity. 

The nemesis of both projects, it seems, strikes in the opposite direction. Rajesh Setty wrote a brilliant piece, called 7 Reasons For The Rise Of Mediocrity (hat tip: Valeria Maltoni). In it, he shares how many people obtain attention without any foundation of ability, accomplishment, or credibility.

It seems to me that he is right, even if I might temper my assessment because I believe insight can come from even the least likely of places. But where I agree with Setty is that I'm no longer convinced enough people are seeking insight. They are seeking mediocrity, wrapped in vanity, a distraction.

And if there is any service that delivers this distraction in an overdosed-sized serving, it has to be Klout. I am not going to dwell on Klout too long. Danny Brown has covered recent events already — from the recent embarrassment of people who believed the original scoring system was something more than make believe to one of the greatest abuses of privacy on the Internet.

I tend to take a broader brush approach to the topic, usually filed under perception or popularity. And while neither of those articles are directly about Klout, they may as well be. The entirety and enormity of the system proposed by that company aims to rob people of real influence by catering to their vanity.

As much as I would like to laugh about it, casting Joe Fernandez as Sylvester McMonkey McBean (and maybe I will again some other day), Klout is becoming dangerous. For every article that laughs at it, there are five more than suggest Klout for resumes (Adweek),  Klout for perks and power (Business Grow), and Klout for university grades (Wall Street Journal, about 3 minutes into the video). 

Yes, Scott Galloway, clinical professor of marketing at New York University, threatens students with public humiliation if their Klout scores falter. He says high Klout scores make students winners. In reality, it asks them to disconnect from people that it considers losers, making them the biggest losers of all and everything Andrew Keen said about the future of social media right on the money.

What We Need To Ask About Influence. 

In determining influence in terms of measurable action, we have to ask ourselves whether the action of inventing, investing, donating, creating, inspiring, or producing goes further than the action of liking, sharing, retweeting, and investing time in the primping of a vanity score for a hand full of hair gel.

And then we have to ask ourselves if pursuing those scores does anything beyond distracting us from activities that might do or might produce a tangible outcome — a small change that leads to large differences in a later state. Or, to use the classic theoretical example, we would have to know that a butterfly flapping its wings several weeks ago didn't in fact form a hurricane today, or not. Do something.

Wednesday, October 26

Anti-Advertising Campaigns: The Christmas Creep

The Consumerist has decided enough is enough. After years of watching companies and businesses roll back holiday shopping, a phenomenon they call "Christmas Creep," they are launching DIY craft project.

Dubbed the "Christmas Creep," the Consumerist has created an ornamental character to bring what it calls the Christmas Creep to life. The consumer advocacy group suggests consumers print the image and then photograph themselves (with the image) next to any prematurely stocked shelves (and presumably sharing it).*

"It seems that every year retailers put out Christmas decorations earlier and earlier, sometimes in the middle of the summer," said Meghann Marco, executive editor of the "We've created the 'Christmas Creep' as a device for consumers to stand up to retailers and take back summer, fall and all the holidays with seasons."

We love The Consumerist but Christmas Creep is dangerous.

While the idea is clever and has some merit, one has to wonder if the whole thing might backfire. Even with the ugly little ornament front and center in the photograph, people who share it on social sites could inadvertently promote the display, products, and store.

Worse, it could result in tipping off other retailers that the holidays have started. And since so many retailers get their cues from the time-honored marketing strategy of follow the leader, what is meant as a symbol of admonishment could accidentally become a symbol of start your engines.

The same holds true for the campaign release. In it, The Consumerist promotes Pier 1 with a put down for sending out a July email that prompted people to "Get an early start on Christmas" and preview items before they hit the stores. Along with Pier 1, they also list Sam's Club, Costco, and Nordstorm as early Christmas Creep offenders.

Even those people who agree enough is enough are likely to shake their heads in disgust — until they apply Advertising Rule Number 6: People lie. In this case, they might join a protest for about 30 seconds. And then run to wherever they can find festive decorations on sale.

Despite all good intentions, the road to hell is paved with them.

Don't get me wrong. The Consumerist is right. Thanksgiving and even Halloween are slowly becoming former shadows of themselves as pre-holiday space is already being set aside in some stores. Kids don't even have time to carve pumpkins or make pilgrim cutouts before someone is trying to turn their heads and talk about gifts. But I still can't fault retailers exclusively.

Even some of the commenters on The Consumerist's site expressed a sense of sympathy for the stores. One of them said they had been asked to start collecting holiday supplies for their office party on December 10. And if none of the stores carried decorations early, they would have a hard time of it.

Sadly, there are only five ways to stop stores from promoting the gift-giving season early. 1. Ignore or boycott them outright. 2. Do what The Consumerist asks people not to do (something illegal or damaging), which I can't reccommend. 3. Continue to find sympathetic media outlets and wage a public relations war that could easily be lost to struggling retailers who are just trying to make it to gift giving. 4 and 5. I'm not even going to mention them because someone will probably get right to it.

In other words, I don't think it can be stopped. But on the bright side, if retailers continue to get a jump on the holidays, the whole thing will eventually catch up with itself. In about 10 years, we will be shopping for next year, this year, and nobody will be the wiser. At least, we can all hope.

*Based on the examples, The Consumerist is trying to avoid promoting specific stores. But unless Christmas Creep retailers are outed, then the ornament trolls are not much more than empty action. On the other hand, at least they are trying to do something.

Monday, October 24

Advertising Everywhere: Can Businesses Help Schools?

A few years ago, I made a joke that advertising was going everywhere — including chalkboards and teacher name tags. But with school districts facing budget cuts, some school districts are starting to sell advertising beyond the common sports scoreboard buy on the football field.

In a recent article by Helmut Schmidt, districts are now selling advertisements on websites or even letting firms wrap ads on wall lockers or put them on floors and walls. One school in Texas even offers up school bus wraps as a source of revenue.

Another school district uses a corporate sponsorship program that brings in $18,000 a year for one school. It paid for scoreboards, theater microphones, and an ATV to haul equipment and injured players.

The positive side of advertising on school assets. 

While some school districts have not earned as much money as they had hoped from experimental advertisements, others have raised an additional $55,000 a year or covered up to half the costs associated with special events. There may be some other opportunities beyond the obvious.

Businesses have grown more impatient with the quality of the students being produced by the educational system, specifically saying that the students do not have even the minimum skill sets to enter the workforce. Although advertising creates an additional incentive, the most obvious solution is to ask the private sector to voluntarily partner with the schools, provided their product or service or message doesn't encourage disruptions or distractions.

Several years ago, I was involved with groups of community leaders within the business sector to help encourage small- and medium-sized businesses to increase business giving on the pretense that a strong community produces a stronger economy, a better educated workforce, and more opportunities.

While the intent was more altruistic in nature, increasing the incentive for businesses to seriously consider schools for partnerships, sponsorships, and even on school grounds advertising could help reduce some costs without asking children to peddle catalog products door to door. Some schools already allow some advertising-related programs, including messages in the back of yearbooks or scoreboards.

But communities, especially those that are supported by larger corporations that could creatively fund science, computer, and robotic classes or associated clubs and after-school programs (areas where education is perceived as weak), could increase revenue with both paid and charitable opportunities for businesses.

The upside for these businesses is three-fold: supporting the community through education, reaching a specific demographic, and investing in students who will eventually become employees, customers, or both. At the same time, it could help put a human face on businesses that many students are not exposed to until well after their college years.

The negative side of advertising on school assets. 

Many people do see the conceptual model differently. Some fear allowing one advertiser means allowing in all of them. Some are adamant that sports fields ought not to look like the minor leagues. And yet others are afraid that some advertisers might convey messages contrary to the position of schools, such as soft drinks and snack foods.

There are even several organizations that have developed anti-commercialism activist groups to stop the proliferation of advertising in schools. Among their complaints are that it promotes materialism, supports coercion, and wasted taxpayer dollars when students are required to watch advertisements.

The group also cites one example where commercially-produced educational material contained biased or incomplete information in 80 percent of the material. Specifically, they felt that such material favored consumption. The group also felt that the advertisements sexualized images.

A few years ago, Coke and Pepsi tried to promote a similar advertising-based concept but were fought by the NEA, the nation's largest teacher's union, which sells its own adveritsing programs. There are several other cases where soft drinks have been blocked, including one in Philadelphia that rejected a $43 million deal for the district several years ago.

Friday, October 21

Dehumanizing People: How Social Connections Create Elitists

In one of the more interesting studies to come out this week, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business hint at a downside to being an "influencer" online.

Although the study does not cite online connections specifically, but rather social connections in general, it does provide a cross section for human behavior that manifests online. In many cases, the behaviors tracked in relation to the study mirror the behaviors of people who eventually grow massive social connections online, as individuals or in tight-knit groups.

Specifically, the study suggests that socially connected people have an increased tendency to view others as less than human — and even treat them as such. In fact, the study links bullying in school, gang violence, and war detainees being tortured as the negative consequences of strong social connections.

How social connections can eventually lead to disconnection.

Although researchers point out that there are many studies that share the positive aspects of social connections (increased self-esteem, happiness, and even improved physical health), they go on to point out that connectivity satiates the motivation to connect with others and create the perceived distance between "us and them."

In extreme cases, the social connections do not necessarily lead to animosity, but eventually convince participants to believe that they are superior and people outside their circles are inferior. This includes believing that outsiders have diminished mental capacities, sometimes going as far as thinking them to be objects or animals or less than fully developed people.

Does online social connectivity eventually lead to dehumanization?

Unrelated to the study, some people think so. Nathania Johnson touched on it two years ago in telling the story how of George Smith Jr. dealt with a blogger who inappropriately attempted to blackmail Crocs. He warned her away, saying he was better connected.

"He called her a nobody (in his blog, not to her face) because he claims to be so connected that he knows who the big bloggers in his space are. (He later 'clarified that she was only a nobody as a blogger ..." — Nathania Johnson, When Bloggers Attack

Ike Pigott created a near-perfect analogy in his post The Internet Is A Kennel, which retold how social connections can elevate someone to become a "chosen one" with propped up minions who will defend their idols to the death, often without even understanding the disagreement or conflict.

"I was pilloried by several people for daring to question the value of the Almighty Robert Scoble. I was asked why I think I am better than he is, and I was questioned about why anyone would bother following me." — Ike Pigott, The Internet Is A Kennel

Geoff Livingston once wrote that he found the A-List to be a condition of society's general values. And that while he understands that may be inevitable, it is not for him. He tends to avoid the ladder toward "elite hood," even at his own "ranking" detriment.

"Some A Listers follow formulas, sharing and content mechanisms to achieve their best practices. The Karaoke Show is on all of them. And they are rewarded for it with popularity and, in some cases, financially." — Geoff Livingston, When Social Media Rewards The Mindless And The Elite

Professionals are not the only ones who are sharpening sticks online. For all the altercations that have occurred on the Web between two or more people attempting to "out follower" each other in power, kids are learning from the behavior of adults. Nearly three in four teenagers say they have been bullied online, usually under the same conditions that professionals allow to play out.

But bullying isn't the only anecdotal evidence of a dehumanizing effect caused by social connections online. With more and more regularity, people who consider themselves A List material are dropping "followers," cutting "friends," and ignoring commenters who do not meet a certain rank, score, or inclusion on a list. In fact, some scoring systems reward them for dismissing the "under class."

The Study: Social Connection Enables Dehumanization. 

Beyond the most extreme cases of violence and inhumane treatment, the research suggests that more varied and subtle consequences are commonplace. It may include harassment in the workplace to overly aggressive fans at a sporting events.

"Any factor that creates disconnection from others, such as power, socioeconomic status or anonymity, may therefore enable dehumanization by disengaging people from the minds of others," the researchers concluded. "The present research suggests that social connection is one such factor that can increase disengagement with the minds of those more distant others, leading to a failure to see people as they really are."

Of course, this is not to suggest everyone is susceptible to allowing their elite status to make them feel superior over their minions and masses of followers. Many A Listers do not adopt anti-social behaviors such as those mentioned above (dehumanization or disengagement) as they begin to believe in their own celebrity. And, there are some very smart people like Arik Hanson who caution professionals away from systems that aggravate the problem by dividing and ranking people.

The study included four experiments. Researchers found that participants who were thinking about a person close to him or her were more likely to dehumanize other people. In extreme cases, they justified treating others like animals. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Wednesday, October 19

Integrating Communication: Ogilvy & Mather Study

The latest results from a new Ogilvy-ChatThreads study seems very promising for social media. The study found that social content can significantly increase spending and consumption among consumers. 
• Social content increases the likelihood of spending and consumption by two to seven times. 
• Social content is more pervasive when combined with public relations, television, or out of home. 
• Social content is most effective in shifting brand perception during a short seven-day period. 
"Much of the work to date has looked at direct channel impacts; for example, do direct clicks from a social media site result in sales?" says Irfan Kamal, senior vice president of digital/social, Ogilvy. "We found that in the real world, social content exposure by itself, and more  broadly when combined with other types of media exposure, is linked with two to seven times higher likelihood of consumption and actual spending increases."
The study captured detailed touch point data in the moment from the consumer's point of view. They also were able to track day-to-day brand exposures and assess the complex interaction with various media and marketing efforts. The study was primarily conducted using restaurant consumers. 
Not all of the study findings were especially positive for social media. 
The data revealed that only 24 percent of the study group reported exposure to social content. The study group reported a 69 percent exposure rate for television. The discrepancy is easy enough to understand. 
Social content is an extremely active and nonlinear space, with most people flipping content at a expedient pace. While television is evolving, it is still a relatively singular and passive activity that demands more attention. People are willing to become lost in a show. They are less likely to be lost in one activity online.
Ogilvy is headed in the right direction with integrated communication. 
I've long held that social media does not exist in a vacuum. When shaping brand perception and making purchasing decisions, they might consciously and subconsciously consider multiple exposures — a recent advertisement, a recent article or news story, word-of-mouth from friends offline, social media, etc.
Ideally, the best marketing strategies create multiple exposure points (advertising, speaking engagements, etc.) that directly or indirectly prompt consumers to look for more information online. And when they look online, they find a well-maintained, engaging (but not sales driven) presence on the social network of their choice. 
And if they don't? Then your television commercial might have made them think about ordering a pizza — but the order will be placed with your competitor. So maybe it's time to quit thinking in terms of milk or cookies when most people agree milk and cookies is more effective. 

Monday, October 17

Guessing At Authenticity: 3 Tips For Better Reputations

After reading Jennifer Leggio's Forbes article "The Battle For Social Media Authenticity," one might wonder whether it is possible for brands (companies) to be authentic. It's a good question to ponder. They mostly can't.

This holds doubly true for the most dubious of brands — solo practitioners — people who spend all day developing a personal brand with surgical precision. From the clothes they wear to what they share, everything is orchestrated to create a persona that appeals to their tribe (a social media term meant to replace "audience" because it sounded so mass media). But the polish ought to be the tip off too.

How can you be authentic if everything is premeditated?

If authenticity is used to describe real people behind a content marketing program, then how can the program resolve its intent to drive sales and or engage people? That is, after all, the priority of most marketers online. In fact, according to the B2B Marketing Trends 2011 Survey, about 82 percent of marketers want to increase engagement* and 55 percent want to drive sales.

The irony is that if the primary objective is sales, searches, and shares, then the program is already one off authenticity. The objective alone tells the story. The intent isn't about the customer or prospect, it's about the company and the content strategist.

How To Flip The Content Funnel For More Sales And Engagement. 

There has been considerable pressure over the years for social media to prove its merit. In most cases, marketers and public relations practitioners have leaned toward visibility measurements to prove their mettle: number of followers, website hits, search rankings, etc. They also mistake engagement for shareability (or the number of times someone else shares content), which also lends to those scores.

All of those metrics can be useful. But focusing on these metrics does not bode well for anyone concerned with authenticity and reputation. Consider point 13 on 15 Ways To Avoid Bad Online Reviews for example. It suggests creating a nest of brand evangelists that "you can count on when a sticky situation arises."

Can you imagine how this might play out in a physical location like a restaurant? It would feel much more awkward than it does online: One customer complains that there is a fly in their soup so 15 other patrons pounce on them to say their soup is fine. Maybe some will even accuse the complainer that the flies came in with her or him.

There is a better way and none of it needs to be contrived. You don't have to develop a social media program that elevates shares and sales as primary objectives because shares and sales work better as outcomes. The better objective ought to be severing prospects and/or customers.

1. Rather than using tactics to drive traffic, develop content that benefits an audience.

Companies that develop content that benefits or is interesting to an audience generally perform better than those that use social media to sell products and services. They outperform by earning a smaller audience's trust over the long term, which indirectly increases real engagement and sales.

It's not much different than the products or services themselves. Companies that develop better, innovative products or services earn sales. Companies that cater to specific online audiences — beyond news about the company — attract a larger audience.

2. Rather than ask social media spokespeople to be actors, ask them to be themselves. 

There is nothing wrong with having a company account that shares content, specials, and company news. But there is more to managing a social network account than broadcasting the latest marketing message with a few jokes interspersed between the daily deals.

Authenticity is a trait exhibited by individuals, not companies. And in order to be authentic, employees need to have the freedom to be themselves more than a sales agent. After all, social networks are more akin to walking a convention room floor than a television channel. If your product or service doesn't meet the prospect's needs, let your employees tell them who might be the better fit.

3. Rather than play at reciprocity, consider your audience every step of the way.

Toss out all the rules and tips and tricks related to sharing. Sure, there are some surface benefits to sharing information at a rate of about 10 to 1 (ten links from others for every one link of yours) and people who tend to share (and follow) tend to share (and follow) back.

However, those surface tactics designed to make someone or something more popular don't further a well-defined strategy designed to benefit prospects and customers. Every shared link ought to benefit those who might be receiving the link rather than benefiting the account sharing the link.

How those three tips will improve your and your company's online reputation. 

All three of these tips can be summed up quite easily. Make it about them instead of you or your company's social media tactics.

While doing so won't make your company authentic, it will go a long way in helping it establish a better reputation. It will also help you too, assuming people know the names behind the brand. Authenticity is demonstrated, not stated. And over the long term, it will always win out over something that is shallow and contrived like Ragu did. Make it about them, not you.

Friday, October 14

Passing On Success: U.S. Wins Gold; U.S. Media Snoozed

Scanning the major media headlines this week, one might assume that the United States is dead in the water. The economy is a train wreck. The national debt is out of control. The space program is all but shelved.

You have to turn all the way to the sports section to see a different story, page two for some publications. The United States team won the gold medal at the world gymnastics championships on Tuesday. It is the team's first world title since a 2007 meet in Stuttgart. And, the team did it after losing one of their top members.

Twenty years ago, this would have have been front page news for days and weeks. This year, it took hours before  many news outlets even knew they ought to be covering it. Some ran it as a sports headline only. And a few more, despite the story staring them in the face, spun a negative headline.

Slate: The United States women's gymnastics team keeps winning gold, but at what cost to the athletes?

Seriously? Electronic outlets were even worse. On America Online, for example, it featured 23 headlines. Not one of them mentioned the U.S. win. Neither did any of the 36 headlines on Yahoo. The Huffington Post ran a story, but it was nowhere near the front page with several dozen others featured instead. In fact, the publication is too busy taking on evil corporate types who make a living off people who don't get fair wages — the irony.

What ran instead? Stories like the Corrupt History Of The Corporate Person, More Bad News For Anthony Weiner, and my personal favorite, Selena Gomez Rocks Glitter Short Shorts On The Carpet.

News Flash: U.S. Women Win World Title At 2011 World Championships.

These women represent some of the brightest, most focused, and dedicated athletes in the world. They represent physical preparedness and, especially important in gymnastics, the mental aptitude to win.

You can learn more about the gold win on the USA Gymnastics site. The men's team didn't do bad either. They brought home the bronze. Some media outlets covered it as a negative, but it's the first team medal for the men's team in eight years. They will certainly be contenders at the next Olympics.

I understand some of it, especially for media outlets in a digital space. According to Alexa, Yahoo's top regional traffic rank is in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Iran, and Nigeria. For The Huffington Post, it's the United States, along with Canada, Pakistan, and South Korea. And anymore, about 30 percent of AOL visitors live in the United Kingdom, Germany, Egypt, and Indonesia. There's nothing wrong with any of it.

In fact, along with the U.S., CNN is heavily viewed in Canada, Nigeria, and Mexico. Fox's top three include Argentina, United States, and Thailand. MSN is popular in Columbia, Mexico, and Belgium. (Please note: this does not mean that U.S. media isn't read by Americans. They rank high here too.)

Again, there is nothing wrong with any of it. You cannot secure a top Alexa rank with one country dominating visits. In fact, this oddball occurrence is one of the reasons the infamous 300,000 rank on Alexa test (for blogger outreach programs) is one of the biggest lies in social media and public relations circles. You have to look deeper if you are trying to reach a specific audience or region.

But that PR point is best saved for another time. The point for this post is that digital outlets are global outlets, and do not necessarily represent American interests, even if they cover American news. This is equally relevant for other countries too. You have to look beyond global rank, and even that is not perfect.

Two Possible Takeaways From The U.S. Gold Win Missed By Media. 

The United States media is becoming packed with Debbie Downers because negative headlines attract more eyeballs than positive headlines. (Ironically, blogs generally perform better with positive slants.) 

This isn't new. But what might be new is that the media isn't looking very hard for good news. And sometimes, it ignores it because a healthy percentage of their readers don't want to read about American success stories. (Much like Americans, in general, don't want to read about Iranian success stories.) 

Then again, maybe it is unique to this country. The United Kingdom's media outlets didn't underplay their star performers. Their women's team finished fifth and their media outlets covered it front and center, much faster and much more positively. Good for them. I think that is great.

But it does makes me wonder. What is the psychological impact of a country that punishes itself daily?

Wednesday, October 12

Saying Whoopsie: Netflix Actions Still Speak Louder

"This means no change: one website, one account, one password ... in other words, no Qwikster." — Reed Hastings 

After several trials and a comedy of errors, CEO Reed Hastings is trying one more time. The message is shorter. The writing is sloppy. But at least people understand what it means: No Qwikster for Netflix.

Qwikster was the proposed solution to accomplish Hastings' long-term goal to completely separate Netflix from the DVD shopping and shipping business. To date, it only accomplished one goal. The restructuring was ridiculous enough that it has all but quelled the alarm over Netflix price increases in July.

Reed was clear about that too. "While the July price change was necessary, we are done with price changes," he said once again. Qwikster, even though the company had already reported it had divided itself into two units, obviously was not necessary. According to some, that makes Qwikster a modern equivalent of New Coke. I don't think so, exactly.

Communicating Change And Price Increases. 

In a few years, assuming Netflix recovers and it probably will, some will ponder whether the price increases and subsequent Qwikster campaign generated publicity and brand awareness that will pay dividends at the bank later.

Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. My take on the whole buzz up is that it didn't have to happen.

Communicating change, even uncomfortable change, is relatively easy. Had Netflix given customers a head start and a better pricing model, it could have raised prices on DVD shopping and shipping and incentivized the move to streaming. The majority of subscribers might have voluntarily switched.

And if the company was serious about skipping out on DVD shopping and shipping, it could have eventually frozen new DVD subscribers some time after the switch. Eventually, the DVD division would have died a quiet and less painful death. No big deal. Netflix knows DVD mail programs are numbered because product purchase and shipping costs are too expensive to make a profit.

Netflix wants to be a streaming service and anybody who doubts it ought to look at its investor relations overview. Nowhere does the description include anything about shipping. On the contrary, the description emphasizes 25 million subscribers over 200 devices. At $8 per subscription, that's $200 million per month without the hassle of pressing discs.

The solution was painfully simple, but overlooked. All Netflix had to do was make its DVD shipping product less attractive over the long haul by making it pay for itself. All the while, it could have been up front and honest with customers that the cost of products and shipping caused the price increases, much like utilities do every year.

At the same time, incentivizing the switch would have made sense because Netflix could probably bank on the idea that most people who try streaming are less likely to go back to shipping. It could have even partnered with some of the device manufacturers, underscoring how easy it is (and encouraging people that today might be the time to upgrade). It all could have been handled seamlessly and without the silly spin of calling a "price increase" a "price change."

Who cares what Netflix does anyway and why does it matter? 

Beyond investors and subscribers, it really doesn't matter. It also makes for a great case study in communication. And the reason there is some significance is simple enough.

Netflix prides itself on the following four traits in an increasingly competitive market: outstanding value, robust selection, customer satisfaction, and adaptability. It believes this is what sets it apart in the marketplace.

The handling of the communication in recent months, especially because the company prolonged the negative communication, cuts deeply at three of those four traits. Customers felt the new price change was not an outstanding value. Customers felt the decisions eroded customer satisfaction. And customers believe that while Netflix might be adaptive, it is not adaptive to the customers it serves.

The worst communication practice for any company is to communicate against the value proposition of the company, especially if it disproves the majority of them. Investors clearly did not appreciate the missteps. Netflix stocks dropped to almost a third of their value (from around $300 to $100 per share) before the price increase. In other words, the lost valuation may have paid for the price increase.

But the real indicator is yet to be announced. On October 24, Netflix will have to report its earnings. And along with those earnings, an accounting of how many more customers are disenfranchised.

Monday, October 10

Creating A New Economy: Are Marketers Ready?

Watching economic indicators can be daunting at times. On the one hand, organizations like the ManpowerGroup are encouraging companies to start employing people. On the other hand, PNC reports that four out of five small businesses will reduce or maintain their employees over the next six months.

Job incentives will not turn the tide, they say. But the reasons for their decision go deeper than the surface argument of weak sales. There is some evidence to support that the economy is changing.

Wealthier countries in the world are beginning to question whether rising incomes equal happiness. It's an idea the Futures Company suggested two years ago. It came up yet again in a recent study conducted by Experian. People are looking for something different from the brands they once consumed, and it may point to a context that has been recently presented by Umair Haque, director of the Havas Media Lab, author, and frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review.

Building a 21st Century Economy from Umair Haque on Vimeo.

The future is more formative than many marketers might think. 

Most business measurements for success are linked to more customers, more leads, more sales. And yet, consumers seem to want less: less consumption, less brand status, and less sameness. The purchasing decisions they make tend to be more meaningful. And the mandatories (how they define basic necessities) seem to be more encompassing.

Is it any wonder that there is more divisiveness over what constitutes happiness, left and right, both with relatively equal economic demographics and both unhappy with the establishment. The key difference is security vs. freedom. But this identification has nothing to do with politics. It's a symptom of change.  

It hints at the shift of how companies might interact with the consumers they serve. Sometimes it surfaces in small ways, like pushback over policy changes or how people respond to quality over consumption. And other times in big ways, with companies volunteering to be attacked (as they attempt to make up for losses caused by questionable regulation) or others undone by their own taxpayer-funded extravagance, delivering a black eye to the entire industry. 

The marketers of the future will consider their customers stockholders. 

On some level, consumers are not much different than they were two decades ago. There are still segments that make decisions based on how they prioritize four considerations: the bottom line, immediate social impact, minute details, and cutting edge advancements. 

But what has changed is a greater need for acceptance and participation, possibly encouraged by the empowerment of social media and the Internet. People don't have to vote with their dollars outright; they can express their dissatisfaction publicly. And then, if the company expresses no desire to change, they vote with their wallets while lobbying for others to do so too. 

Many marketers are frightened by it. But they need not be so terrified. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of Kickstarter is that it taps into the change that is occurring in the marketplace. The people who participate are readily engaged with the people who have some smart and creative ideas.

This doesn't mean that the creator gives up any control of their project, although some do collaborate with backers. It simply means that they create an opportunity for consumers to share in their success, much like Donors Choose does for education. 

Status, brand, and big budgets all become secondary considerations to delivering a fulfilling and meaningful experience. Consumption is replaced by consideration. More messages are replaced by the right messages. Impulse shopping is replaced by purchaser fulfillment. 

It seems very unlikely that some companies will measure up in the decades ahead, especially if consumers become aware of a better choice. You can even see it in the most mundane of places. Facebook pages that have enticed the most likes are not the most talked about

So the questions are pretty simple for marketers. How do you align your company with the near future consumer? And if you cannot, then what will your company's exit strategy be in this decade?

Friday, October 7

Creating Comedy: The Alliance for Family Entertainment

The Alliance of National Advertisers' (ANA) Alliance for Family Entertainment (The Alliance for Family Entertainment) is launching a national search for a new screenwriter this month, with the winner receiving $5,000 for a 30-minute live-action family comedy. Along with the cash award, the winner will receive personal mentoring from  John Wells on his or her script.

Wells is probably best known for the creation of ER, Third Watch, and The West Wing. The Alliance for Family Entertainment is the same group responsible for bringing the Gilmore Girls, Everybody Hates Chris, and Friday Night Lights to television. It has also helped find, support, and air 20 hit TV shows over the years.

All amateurs are invited to submit a script for consideration. 

The Alliance for Family Entertainment is serious about finding someone new from the United States. Entrants must be individuals (not teams) and not members of a professional writing guild or professional writing union.

After the mentoring, any additional opportunities that arise with networks would be negotiated. While networks make any final decisions, the Alliance for Family Entertainment is a group of nearly 40 national advertisers and supported by the ANA. It represents approximately 30 percent of all U.S. television advertising dollars.

"Marketers of family brands are often stymied in finding shows to support that offer smart, sophisticated takes on family life that everybody can watch and enjoy," says Bob Liodice, president and CEO of the ANA. "So our determination to find and help fund the production of promising family scripts and encourage emerging young talent to write stories about modern family life is good for business."

The contest has a litany of official rules (read those carefully) posted on a standalone site: America's Newest Comedy Writer. The contest was open to submission yesterday, and will continue accepting them through Oct. 28. The judging period is brisk, with judging concluded by Nov. 11 and the winner announced on Nov. 28.

The Alliance for Family Entertainment supports several initiatives, including granting scholarships to young screenwriters from time to time. It was initially started when ANA members Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson felt that there was not enough family programming to display family brands. Those shows tend to lose out over edgier programs in the ratings.

The irony is that many viewers believe that advertisers support the edgier shows, even though there are many companies that would prefer backing family shows (ideally, with viewership). One of the quips on the Alliance for Family Entertainment site is that they believe there can be shows that don't bore or shock families after 8 p.m.

Comedy writing, especially family comedy, is the hardest form of writing. 

Even in writing advertising humor, edgy comedy is immensely easier than wholesome because edgy humor can capitalize on making us uncomfortable. A couple of years ago, I shared six guidelines for funny in advertising and much of it applies to family sitcoms as well. Here are three more.

Tip 1. Jokes aren't funny. While jokes can be funny for standup, they aren't very funny for television. It's one of the reasons that shows packed with one liners don't last long, even if a character is a jokester. When it comes to programming, people want to lose themselves in the characters and not the writer.

Tip 2. Timing is funny. Great script writers know that timing is funny. An easy way to take advantage of timing is to allow the audience to briefly anticipate it. Writers can win one of two ways: Either by delivering what the audience expects or, better, making them think they know what to expect and then delivering something better.

Tip 3. Real life can be funny. There is a close relationship between comedy and tragedy, especially when the tragedy is something we can all relate to, e.g., toilet paper hanging from the back of someone's pants. This is also why stereotypes aren't often funny. Not everyone will be able to relate to them. The more people who can relate, the funnier the situation.

Writing comedy has always been one of my favorite things to do (not that I have many chances to do it). But it is exceptionally hard work to be funny. It's especially hard because you have make it look easy.

Wednesday, October 5

Writing Wrongs: Five Things Writers Need To Teach Themselves

According to the Harvard Business Review, nearly one-third of all professionals write poorly. And if these numbers are consistent with high school proficiency studies from two years ago, the majority aren't much better. Most get by with rudimentary skills.

After all, proficiency is a cut above basic. And right now, only about one in five high school graduates is a proficient writer. I suspect that number could be cut in half (and half again) if we set the bar closer to professional standards. There are only a few who could be considered good to great.

Most studies suggest that the problem begins before high school, with students not being required to write enough to become proficient. This year, I believe it. My son has been struggling with writing lately, which prompted me to ask: When did someone ever teach him to write in the first place? I can't recall.

I'm not worried yet, but only because writing is something I can teach him. Or, more accurately, I know that I can teach him how to teach himself how to write. Writing, like art, is a largely self-taught skill.

Writing is one of the most difficult and rewarding skills to teach. 

As an instructor, I've taught writing classes for eleven years. One of them is a simple half-day editing and proofreading refresher. It doesn't provide me with any sense of how much or how little students might know, before or even after the class.

My next session for Editing And Proofreading Your Work will be held this Nov. 4. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, likes to run the class two or three times a year. My other class is very different. It's a 10-week truncated course with eight assignments and one in-class assignment. It's held in the spring.

I have a general sense of the writing proficiency in the class after the very first assignment. And in general, the writing proficiency at the onset of the class is in decline. Even students who are working in the field (as writers) are struggling. But the struggle isn't always about writing. It's everything else.

The assignment is to write their own obituary, set some 20 or 30 years into the future. It's a great first exercise because it gives me an indication of their skill sets beyond writing skills, which are often even more critical than remembering grammar rules and style tips. It's also what most professors can't teach.

Five things professors cannot teach people to help them become better writers. 

1. Listening. Especially in communication (advertising, public relations, etc.), listening skills are critical because so much of the work is translating an organizational vision into motivational or educational or instructional content. If you don't listen to the client, it's impossible to deliver acceptable work.

The first assignment is a giveaway. Even though I will ask for an obituary as if a journalist wrote it, I will often receive a eulogy. It doesn't matter if I explain the difference in class or not. Likewise, it doesn't matter that the mandatories (like double spacing) are included in the course outline for some.

2. Understanding. While understanding is just an extension of listening (turning listening into active listening), it still counts. If you don't understand an assignment, it pays dividends to ask questions.

The first assignment is a giveaway because I do not pass out obituary examples. I ask them to look a few up on their own. Most clients do not provide samples. And the few who do are generally stuck in "I like" thinking that usually has nothing to do with their audience. I do, however, tell students that they can ask questions any time by email. Few ever do, and never on the first assignment.

3. Thinking. There is no way around it. Good writing requires good thinking. Not only do writers have to think up an organizational structure, but they also have to make it flow and remain interesting or compelling.

The first assignment is always revealing in how much time I will have to invest in organizational structure. It's not uncommon to see different ideas jumbled up in the same paragraph or any transitional bridges that will help their readers move from one point to the next.

I do teach how to think, but sometimes it's a challenge. More and more students want templates.

4. Passion. Probably the biggest decline in writing proficiency from my perspective is passion. I suspect the decline has been accelerated because of the breakneck speeds at which people attempt to write, but the real culprit is that some students struggle to connect any passion with their subject.

The first assignment is telling because if the students struggle with writing about their own dreams and aspirations, it's a fair indication that they will be passionless when they have to write a news release about the opening of a hotel. Unfortunately, you can't teach people passion beyond quick tip lists.

5. Motivation. In addition to a lack of passion, more students are struggling with self-motivation. Not only do they cheat themselves on the amount of time it takes to write a quality piece, but they are also too busy with life to complete every assignment. And even if they do complete every assignment, many resist rewrites so they have the opportunity to practice applying all those notes they receive on graded papers.

The first assignment provides a great benchmark for both areas. It's easy to tell which students are serious and which students need prodding — even though most took the course to become better writers. As hard as it is to imagine, they won't make time to help themselves.

Anyone can teach you grammar rules and style tips. The rest is up to you. 

The statistic on writing proficiency came from a bundled collection of articles that Harvard has put together. They do a fine job covering the basics, from pushing past writer's block to avoiding grammar gaffes. But mostly, they only scratch the surface on the most critical skill sets that I've included above.

If you really want to be a better writer, much like I will be teaching my son, then you have to master those five areas first. I'm not always convinced students are being taught these skill sets anymore.

To be a better writer, you really need to listen to what your client (or instructor, or audience) needs, understand the subject matter almost as good as the experts, organize the best approach to communicate those ideas, find the hook that provides enough passion to drive the story forward, and have the motivation to make every piece leave an impact.

If you don't have these down, then everything is trivia. If you do, then the rest is all style and polish.

Monday, October 3

Creating Communities: More Choices, Weaker Loyalists

The saying may be cliche, but the science is real: Birds of a feather do flock together.

According to research published in Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, people prefer to make friends with others who share similar beliefs, values, and interests. But even more interesting, in the age of diversified and limitless choices online, people are even more apt to choose friends who are like them.

In fact, although the study was not conducted on Internet relationships, it found that when people have more choices, they are even more likely to seek out relationships with people like themselves. The logic point is sound: Similarity makes for smoother and more pleasant interactions.

What happens when the choices are limited?

This was one of the questions that Angela Bahns of Wellesley College and Chris Crandall and Kate Pickett of the University of Kansas sought out on college campuses. The researchers approached and surveyed pairs of students on two campuses, asking them questions about various beliefs and values.

By comparing the answers between college students at a campus with 25,000 students to another with only 5,000 enrolled, they found that students interacting on a larger campus with more choices were even more likely to be similar to their friends than a smaller campus with fewer choices.

However, that wasn't the extent of the study. It also found that the students at the smaller campus rated their friendships as closer. And researchers speculated that friendships on the larger campus may not be as tight because students felt they could more easily make new friends.

What community managers and marketing pros might learn from the study.

Social ecologies shape the way people initiate and maintain relationships. This isn't the first study to suggest it. The paper includes references to previous studies, including Kon & Losenkov (1978) that found similar differences between rural and urban schools.

The earlier study found that rural schools had fewer friendships and less "network elasticity" but more stable relationships. What makes this important for companies attempting to develop online communities, or even those developing social networks, is that as their communities grow, they change the social ecology.

And, in fact, rapid growth and diversification of a social network or a community on a social network could undermine the strength of the community as people feel less connected to the larger population. In other words, pressing for popularity — capturing more members in a shorter timeframe (the measure of success for most companies) — could lead to a more fragmented, less engaged, and more transient population. It's the difference between a trend and a fad.

It may even allude to a flaw in the tribes concept by Seth Godin. While Godin is right that community managers a.k.a. leaders ought to seek out similarly minded individuals to create a tribe (or more likely, the tribe will come together on their own within a social ecology), the tribes concept is less scalable than anyone imagined and the faster it grows, the more likely it begins to fragment.

As the group or network becomes larger and larger, it is even more likely that the "leader" or "leaders" of what seems like a strong community will alienate segments of their growing population — either because the growth was propelled by the temporary alliance of another "leader" or because "new leaders" of smaller groups begin to emerge within the larger ecology. This leads to less influence, not more, as current algorithms and marketing quotients dictate.

The importance of organic development and adaptability.

While there is certainly something to be said for rapid growth and viral attention, long-term success relies on the adaptability of any online community — there may be a need for community managers to slow down. Slowing down allows community managers to segment emerging tribes within the networks (creating many small towns within a larger network), elevate members within their network (to manage different segments) or, at minimum, revisit their content strategy to ensure topical strength over individual allure (making the connection based on interest as opposed to personality).

Failing to do so frequently leads to so-called leaders or brands abandoning large segments of their network base as similarities begin to erode and/or segments of a larger population begin to push back. There are several individuals and companies and social networks facing this now.

Once they reach a critical mass, they begin to change the ecology they create, alienating the initial attraction. And in the greater context of the Internet, their once seemingly "loyal" base quickly discovers that network elasticity means that they can replace them. It also means something else. Unlike a prospect who has no pretext of expectation, those who are disenfranchised never forget.

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