Wednesday, November 30

Projecting Media: How One Source Becomes Two Stories

Depending the article you read, the next generation of television viewers is either growing or in jeopardy.

The Wall Street Journal reports an average of 5.8 million children between the ages of 2 and 11 watch television (broadcast, cable, and live) at any given moment. It's 1.7 percent higher than last year. The article concentrates on the big losses experienced by Viacom's Nickelodeon (down 15-20 percent) and Time Warner's Cartoon Network (down 11 percent) but cited gains in other channels, including the Disney Channel (up 5.9 percent) and The Hub (up 50 percent). The article alludes to more kids watching adult programs.

Ad Age, using the same data, ran a different story. It reported that Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney XD all experienced heavy declines, and only hinted at the gains at Disney Channel and The Hub, dismissing the latter channel's gains because the comparisons are drawn against the low-rated Discovery Kids. The article then shifts to television's increasing competition from other media, including social networks and gaming. It also cites a Kaiser Family Foundation study that says children ages 8-18 watch 25 fewer minutes a day.

What is especially interesting about the two stories is that they were prompted by the same research from Nielsen. And yet, the overriding slant of the Wall Street article is that Nickelodeon is in trouble despite growing viewership, underscored by the channel's plea to wait for upcoming fresh episodes. Whereas the overriding slant of the Ad Age article is that the entire youth audience is slipping, with Nickelodeon leading the way, even if Viacom claims a ratings glitch.

Expect both articles will be shared with new slants. The Hollywood Reporter already spun off The Wall Street Journal piece. Ad Age has had fewer takers, but mostly because what might frighten marketers isn't likely to frighten parents. The more compelling observation is how media is shaped and what that means.

The consequence of journalism's time crunch is accelerating different realities. 

I've been fascinated with the changing shape of media for some time, especially as it pertains to perception and reality. And while we can only infer that the journalists have different world views of television, comparing the two stories demonstrates how validation is increasingly prevalent in media, not only for how we consume media but also in how professionals report it.

In fact, there is enough content on the Internet today to prove that children are both watching more and less television than they did 10 or 20 years ago. And for some authors, it is even critical to prove it one way or another. After all, there is no reason to write about the dangers of television to kids (or the benefits of television* before railing on the negatives) unless it constitutes a threat or benefit.

But what that really means, as a marketer or parent, is the emphasis need not be placed on the delivery system (television) as much as the programs being delivered. The same can be said for how we consume information and make informed decisions, with the burden of fact-checking falling less on reporters (citizen or professional) than on consumers.

In the case of the two articles above, the net takeaway might be that Ad Age is correct in that kids spend less time in front of the television but more time with a variety of media, with a heavy emphasis on multitasking. But where The Wall Street Journal is right is in that some channels are losing young viewers to better programs, especially those with more engaging or interesting content. More adult shows included.

Equally important for marketers, they might place more measure on the psychographics of these viewers, asking tough questions like: Which types of kids are watching Spongebob and which aren't, and are those kids more inclined to like this product or that product? Likewise, parents don't have to be passive about programing, but rather take some time to balance what is appropriate while appreciating that kids might not be as corruptible as we think.

Monday, November 28

Scoring Social: The Rise And Fall Of Klout

You all know the story, because it's all very true — there are plenty of marketers who dream of the day that they can give us all scores. It would make their lives easy, terribly easy you see: if they could base who gets what for which price or what fee.

If we only had scores to sort out their big mess. Never mind names or merits or interests or lives, just a list of our scores and a button to click. That would be enough, it's painfully clear. One score to determine who gets what prizes and perks, what service and more.

The Crazy Story Of Blogs And Social Media.

Then one day it happened, some will remember, when Clout-Belly bloggers were sometimes called stars. Everyone else, those without content on thars, were called Plain-Belly people, their reach not so far.

Now, being an online blogger wasn't always so special. Compared to actors and inventors or directors and authors, it was really quite small. In fact, you would think such a thing wouldn't matter at all.

But it did. Because they were stars, all the Clout-Belly bloggers would brag, "We're the best of all people on social media beaches." And with their snoots in the air, some would sniff and they'd snort. "We'll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort."

When Clout-Belly children went out to play ball, could Plain-Belly kids get in the game ... ? Not at all. You could only play if your parents stayed up and blogged through the night. And those Plain-Belly kids had parents without any online might.

So when the Clout-Belly bloggers received their frankfurter perks, or picnics or parties or free root beer floats, marketers never invited the Plain-Belly people. They left them out in the cold, behind the red ropes. They kept them away, dashing their hopes. And that's how things went, year after year.

And then one day, it seems ... while the Plain-Belly people were tweeting and talking, sharing and squawking, some of them daydreaming of the day they might start a blog to earn more clout, a stranger zipped up with this new thing called Klout.

The Brief And Sordid History Of Klout.

"My friends," he announced in a voice clear and keen,"My name is Joe Fernandez. And I've heard you're unhappy, but I can fix that. When my mouth was wired shut, I became the Fix-It-Up Chappie. And I've come here to help you, I have what you need. My price is quite low and I work with great speed. Better than that, my idea is one hundred percent guaranteed."

Then, very quickly, Fernandez did shout. He put up his algorithm and started to tout. "You want to be stars like the Clout-Belly bloggers ...? My friends, you can have them for a price pretty cheap. Just give me access to your data, feeds, and friends when you tweet."

"Just open your accounts and hop right aboad!' So they clamored inside and signed on the line. And the algorithm bonked. And it jerked. And it burped. And then it bopped them about. They didn't mind, because the thing really worked! When the Plain-Belly people popped out they had Klout scores. They actually did. They had Klout upon thars.

And then they yelled at the ones who had clout at the start. "We're exactly like you! You can't tell us apart. We're all just the same, now, you snooty old smarties. We don't even have to write a stitch, you crazy old coots. We just share and type nonsense, and we get all the perks, like new shoes or new boots!"

"Good grief!" said the ones who had worked right from the start. "We're still social medial gurus and they're still just the masses. But, now, how in the world do we know it? If this kind is what kind or that kind is this kind and this kind is what kind then I think we need glasses!"

Just then, up came Fernandez with a very sly wink and he said, "Things are not quite as bad as you think. So you don't know who's who? That is perfectly true. But come with me, friends. Do you know what I'll do? I'll make you, again, the best kinds of tweeps with real social media reach. All I have to do is change my secret formula."

"Clout-Belly bloggers are no longer in style," said Fernandez with a smile. "What you need is a trip through my Clout-to-Klout dumb-it-down kettle. This wondrous contraption will change clout to Klout, and we'll score you the same, but with a nod to your mettle."

And that's what he did, lickity-split. They signed up for Klout with the same conditions and poof. Their once Kloutless accounts suddenly earned scores through the roof!

"Ha ha," they declared, with yell of great triumph. "We know who is who now, and there will be no doubt. The best kind of online gurus are those with high Klout!"

Then, of course, those who had just gotten scores were frightfully mad. To have a lower score was now frightfully bad. But in like a flash, Fernandez was there. He invited them in for a transparency fair. He told them all they needed to know about scoring, or so he said. Keep busy online, today 'til you're dead.

"That's right. It's all very easy," he said with a grin. "I'll change the influence scoring here and there on a whim. You just keep typing and sharing and shouting. I've got the contracts to put you in marketing."

And then, from then on, as you can probably guess, things turned into a terrible mess. All the rest of the day and on through the night, the Fix-It-Up-Chappie played them like a kite. Tweet this, post that, plus this, and add that. And through the networks they charged, opening them all to get better scores. They kept tweeting perks, posting plugs, and adding plus ones; no time for friends or thinking or fun.

And soon, the whole thing was confusion, their heads spun up on a spool: which one was this one or was this one really that one. Or which one was what one ... and what one was who. But none of that mattered. Because all through the night and all through the day, Fernandez was raking it in on the backs of those people who stopped talking to friends. And he laughed and he laughed, from his perch of free perks, "you can teach them new tricks, but you can't teach them about worth."

Now, I would like to say that it all ended that day. That people became just a little bit smarter. But unfortunately for us, humans aren't like Sneetches who learned something new. That the size of your worth is based on the friendships you make, and not your score, status, or hue.

Related Reading From Around The Web. 

Why I Quit Klout by Schmutzie

Why I Quit Klout by Matt LaCasse

Why I quit Klout by David Kaufer

Why I Quit Klout by Ben Loeb

Why I Quit Klout by Botgirl Questi

How To Get Your Profile And Data Completely Disconnected From Klout by Danny Brown

Feel free to add a link to your own "Why I Quit Klout" post in the comments. We'll approve them. Special thanks to Dr. Seuss, whose original story "The Sneetches" inspired this satire about online influence. The Klout story is amazingly just like it, maybe exactly like it if people let the concept get carried away rather than focusing in on what's more important in life.

Then again, a few people won't have it. After quitting Klout, some have even suggested banning marketers who participate. If that ever happens, then Klout will learn about scoreless influence.

Wednesday, November 23

Thanksgiving: How Social Media Is Like A Turkey

Sometimes social media is real time communication, which means the timing of the message is just as important as the message itself. I was reminded of that yesterday as I was finishing up a 1,200-word column that I was going to title Occupy Thanksgiving.

The piece is decent, and perhaps more personal than I usually post on this blog. The topic was just a little reminder that keeping your focus on scarcity can be detrimental whereas being grateful for the little things in life can help you wake up happy every day, even in the face of tragedy. I know. Despite many tragedies and near tragedies, I have a lot to be grateful for. And I hope you do too.

I still think it's an important topic, but the timing isn't right. Nobody needs too much food for thought before a long weekend. So I shelved the column for another day and set to work on something light — a slow burn satire of sorts for all those claims that social media is like one thing or another.

So, in honor of Thanksgiving in America, why not make social media like a turkey? It's not all that different when you really think about it. And in some ways, it's even better because I can chuckle at the absurdity of it and you won't leave feeling bloated.

How Social Media Is Like A Turkey. 

• Decide On A Recipe. There are hundreds of different recipes to make a successful turkey, ranging from maple roast with gravy to honey-brined smoked. It doesn't really matter which one you decide to make, but it's always a good idea to know what else you plan to serve and if your guests have any preferences. Right. Your turkey is part of a bigger plan.

• Defrost Before Cooking. Even if you know what kind of turkey you want to cook, part of your plan requires a defrost period. If you start too cold, your turkey will never be fit for consumption. Slow down, put the bird in the refrigerator, and let it thaw, about 24 hours for every five pounds. For social media, this phase is listening.

• Stuff With Contents. Start combining some of the ingredients you plan to stuff your turkey with, whatever it might be. Maybe you like onions, mushrooms, celery, green pepper, and bread crumbs. Some people like vegetable stuffing, other people like cornbread stuffing. The important part is to pick the contents that complement your turkey.

• Roast Your Turkey. Roasting a turkey takes time. You cannot expect a 20-pound turkey to cook in half an hour, not even if you try to rush it. It takes time and constant care, basting so that neither the turkey nor the contents dry out or, worse, are served undercooked. It's true. Undercooked turkey makes people sick.

• Prep The Meal. It used to be easy because all anyone had to do was take care of the turkey. But nowadays, people want a little bit more. You have to cook the rest of the meal. When the turkey is roasting and just starting to attract attention it is the best time to add corn, cranberry sauce, potatoes, and dinner rolls. You don't have to serve everything. Focus on what other social sides they really enjoy (e.g., if nobody eats cranberry sauce, don't serve it).

• Serve It Hot. Serve everything at precisely the right temperature, usually warm and steamy. In cold weather climates, people will look forward to the meal all the more. Just don't expect everyone to come to the table at the same time. Even though everyone will eat the turkey, it really is the least important part of Thanksgiving. Family members are busy catching up and many people enjoy watching the game.

• Say Grace. When many people hear the word "grace," they immediately think it implies faith. For many people, it does. For other people, not so much. You make the call as appropriate to you and your guests, but the general idea is still valid. If you are lucky enough to have people interested in your turkey dinner (as opposed to all those other turkey dinners out there), be grateful not expectant.

• Enjoy The Company. The bigger the party, the more distractions. There are bound to be tiffs, spills, splatters, and complaints at some Thanksgiving dinners. Take it all in stride. For the moment, these are your people — your family, friends, and acquaintances — and they deserve your respect. Despite the way some experts feel, it's not polite to have people show up for dinner but exclude them from pie.

• Reward The Heroes. While every host takes the time to treat every guest as equals, there are always those times when there just isn't enough of something to go around. Do the best you can. One drumstick might go to grandpa because it's the only part he eats, but giving one to someone under ten can make an impression for life. There are lots of these moments, right down to breaking the wishbone.

• Cleanup And Feedback. Ask your guests how they liked the meal and take notes for next time while cleaning up the mess and pushing a few leftovers out the door. Thanksgiving is just like that. There are always some links to be fixed, comments to approve, and people to thank. You have to love every minute of it because you invited them, remember?

Oh, and one more thing. Measure success based on how well you served everyone who attended and not by the number of footprints you have to vacuum off the carpet. Social media is about quality more than quantity, and some days it's hard enough to just keep up with everyone.

But more important than measurement, smile and be thankful. If you can't remember that, then sooner or later, you're likely to be the only turkey left. Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy the long weekend. We'll have something up on Monday.

Monday, November 21

Developing Presence: Brand Relevance

You can read about it almost anywhere. Social media has changed marketing forever. Social media has changed marketing campaigns. Social media has changed brand marketing.

There are literally hundreds of articles about the impact of social media. I've written a few posts on the subject, well before before social media became the catch phrase for anything online. But I still find myself asking if it really changed marketing. And if it did, then what did it really change?

Did social media really change anything?

To really understand what social media changed, it might be useful to consider the most significant change to communication prior to the Internet. That change would be the introduction of television.
In 1941, watchmaker Bulova paid $9 for a 20-second television spot before a baseball game. The graphics weren't anything special, but the message was clever: America runs on Bulova time. From that day forward, some people argued that television changed marketing.

After all, television advertising became the most effective mass-market platform on the planet. Companies could buy up local, regional, national, and even international spots to deliver relatively quick memorable messages, ideally, in between segments of programming chosen because of their ability to reach particular audiences based on demographics and psychographics.

But did television advertising really change marketing? 

Those who argue it did, probably don't understand marketing and advertising as much as they think they do. Television did not change marketing as much as some people think it did.

It didn't change the products. It didn't change the mission or vision of the companies that bought spots. It didn't change physical distribution channels. It didn't change the importance of developing strong contrast points or a unique selling proposition between one product and closely aligned competitors.

So what did it really change? Mostly, it changed message delivery.

And social media? Sure, it goes further than television did. After all, some companies exist solely because of the Internet (just like some solely exist because of television). But, by in large, social media didn't change marketing as much as it did message delivery, but one step further than television.

What is social media and why does it fit within marketing? 

Social media describes technologies that people use to share content, opinions, insights, experiences, and perspectives by interacting with each other in an environment. It is one of the few communication vehicles that empowers people and companies with the potential to become broadcasters with the ability to reach people on a one-to-one, one-to-some, and one-to-many basis. So yes, it is a powerful platform.

But there are many things it did not change about marketing. It did not change most products. It did not change most missions and visions. It did not change the need for a strong contrast or unique selling proposition.

What it did, for the first time on a mass scale, was create an environment that allowed marketers to receive near real-time feedback on their various marketing messages. And, it helps to hold them accountable.

When a company changes a logo, people might have an opinion about it. When a company offends prospects, social media can deliver a negative return on investment. When companies fail to deliver on customer service, the complaint doesn't exist in a void.

But even within this context, that doesn't change marketing ideologies. In fact, there are scores of social media companies that neglected traditional marketing. So what does social media really change?

Social media adds brand relevance to the marketing mix. 

Aside from real-time feedback, social media offers a very distinct marketing advantage. But most companies never consider it. In fact, this is why small businesses have mostly stalled with social media and why social media has mostly stalled with big brands.

Most companies invest all of their online activities in broadcasting mass media messages online. But what most companies miss is that social media gives brand relevance equal weight to brand reputation.

Coca-Cola makes for a great example. It might be one of the most celebrated brands online, but the perception does not measure up to reality. Coca-Cola has 36 million fans on Facebook but less than .2 percent are active. Why? Because Coca-Cola puts out a steady stream of product-centric messages, the least interesting messages on the Internet.

"Do you remember your first Coke?" "Rumor has it only two people know the secret ingredients of Coca-Cola." "Make a sour lemon smile - pop it in a Coke." ...

The monotony of it all is almost overbearing. It's like going over to a friend's house to talk about how great they are, every single day. Even the most once loyal friends would eventually burn out.

It's understandable. Brands and small businesses have a hard time talking about anything else. They want to push product. They want to drive sales. They want it to be all about them, every single day.

Except, this thinking runs counter to online communication, with consumers (not companies) dictating which topics they'll talk about online. The burden to prove brand relevance belongs to the company.

How to demonstrate brand relevance within topic spheres. 

For most companies, it need not be difficult. Scanning mission statements or mottos of Fortune 500 companies, some have logical starting points. If Albertsons wants to make life easier for its customers, it could introduce new products, highlight healthy choices, and share recipes. Estee Lauder has no shortage of natural and retail beauty insights, especially those used by celebrities and consultants. Mattel has no shortage of popular and nostalgic content to draw upon. And so on.

But it doesn't have to be this obvious. Social media can further any number of communication goals, ranging from shifting public perception (e.g., environmental issues) to becoming a subject matter expert.

Or, it might be simple. An Italian restaurant in Las Vegas might consider cooking, culture, and proximity as topics. An eco-tourism company could engage in topics like environmental issues, history and culture, or photography and art. Accountants can share insights into wealth management and legacy planning. And so on, all while staying true to their mission and vision.

How to increase brand relevance is instinctively a marketing challenge, especially because the solutions are as varied as the organizations operating within any market segment. In fact, it's the same approach employed by so-called influencers who have risen to have some sway within their subject areas.

Friday, November 18

Stalling: Small Business And Social Media

According to a new survey conducted by OfficeArrow and SocialStrategy1, small business executives are increasingly aware that social media impacts their business (42 percent) but are still unable to take advantage of it (67 percent). Thirty-one percent are not even sure where to begin. Small businesses have concerns about social media.

• Personal and professional information issues.
• Time commitment and basic understanding.
• Information overload and general confusion.
• Outcome measurement against investment.
• Lack of security and inappropriate content.

The outcome of these concerns is that only about one-third of small businesses will be dedicating additional funds to social media in the near future. Most (67 percent) are hesitant to invest more (or at all) in social media because they don't know how to prioritize their efforts beyond gathering intelligence.

The "Social Media Problem" For Small Business Isn't A Social Media Problem.

The challenge that most businesses have with social media isn't a social media problem. It's a strategic communication problem, punctuated by the fact that most small businesses don't have any semblance of a communication plan, which ought to be the driving force of any social media effort.

Without a communication plan, companies adopting social media are virtually predestined to feel overwhelmed. In fact, even those firms that have some semblance of a communication plan tend to be in over their heads. It doesn't even matter if they attend classes and seminars, hire someone internally, or outsource some of their social media program to a firm. They often hire the wrong people.

Sometimes I liken it to hiring the best mechanic, but without ever knowing how to drive. Or worse, for companies without communication plans, it's like hiring a mechanic to do the driving but without any destination in mind.

Right. The most common approach to social media today is to jump in a car for the first time and drive solo at high speeds on the highway. And the second most common approach is to hire someone who will randomly drive to as many locations as possible with the hope that a miracle will happen if they visit enough places.

Ironically, the problem isn't new. Twenty years ago, brochures were the most common communication tool of business-to-business or business-to-consumer communication. But if you asked a small business owner why they needed one, the most common answer would be because everyone else had one. And when websites supplanted brochures as the priority, the same story played out all over again.

Social Media Doesn't Start With An Expert. It Starts With A Communication Plan.

Whether you are a small business with less than 10 employees or more than 200 employees, you need a communication plan. Simply stated, a communication plan is the blueprint of all communication.

You can even divide the plan into two parts. The first part brings together the mission, vision, values, history, and an assessment of current internal and external issues that are aligned with the company's goals.

The second part considers the company's most important publics, its most important messages (partly dictated by what people already are saying about the company), how those messages are best delivered to those publics, when is the best time to deliver those messages, and how to analyze feedback and adjust. Sounds like a job for an intern right?

If a company could successfully fill in those blanks, social media would be undeniably easier to plan, establish tangible goals, and measure outcomes over the long term. And, it would likely be tens times more effective if companies could appreciate that while everyone online has the potential to be a broadcaster, social media is not a broadcast channel. But that subject is better saved for next week.

You can find the OfficeArrow and SocialStrategy1 survey responses here. You can ask questions in person during my upcoming social media class here. And you can find out how social media message delivery differs from traditional marketing messages next week, which is one of its principal advantages.

Wednesday, November 16

Standing Up: Communication Stops Bullies And Abusers

The knock at the door was fierce, followed by an aggressive sequence of door bell rings. It's not unexpected when you have a preteen in the house, even if most of his friends show more respect.

It wasn't a friend.

I may have never known it, but my son came bounding up the stairs a moment later.

"Can I go outside?" he said. "Some kid wants to fight me."

"Um, no you may not," I said, still in disbelief over what I heard.

"What should I tell them?"

"I don't know," I said. "Tell them to piss off before they piss me off."

So that is what he did, but not exactly. He told the kid to come over tomorrow at high noon, a nearly subconscious nod to the diminishing reruns of westerns that some of us grew up with three decades ago. I was amused, but still not pleased.

As three kids loitered in front of the house, the primary antagonist still stung by my son's matter-of-fact response and the promise of a new fight time the next day, I asked my son what it was all about.

Turns out, the principal aggressor, who had a head or two of height on my son but no martial arts sparring medals to speak of, was nothing more than a bully. My son explained it all on the quick.

The bully had been harassing a girl at school, a friend of my son's. A few weeks ago, she would have considered herself an online friend of the bully. But his social network conversations with her had recently turned from banter to advances. She wasn't interested. He couldn't take no for an answer.

Apparently, it wasn't enough to keep the rejection to himself. Every time the bully would pass her in the school hallway, he call her a bitch. Every time he gathered with a few friends at lunch, he would whine away about how she was no good. And every time he had a chance, with a glance or sometimes more physical stance, he would squeeze in on her space and make her feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, and afraid.

My son put a stop to it. He called him out. And while he wasn't looking for a fight, he was looking to stop the harassment.

"I think you should leave her alone," he had said. And the bully left her alone, almost immediately.

But like many troubled and tormented youths today, stories tend to spread. Eyewitness accounts are sometimes embellished. And the bully knew that if he let the shutdown stand, his reputation for toughness, despite being propped up by nothing more than fragile fakery, would be at an end.

"There isn't going to be fight tomorrow," I told my son. "There isn't going to be a fight at all."

Since the bully and his friends were still loitering in front of our driveway, I took the opportunity to have a chat with them. I did because I already knew something about bullies that the bullies never count on.

Most of them are cowards, crushed out easily any time you hold a mirror to their faces, exposing them for what they really are under their puffed chests and furrowed brows. I had something to tell him.

Only fearless communication can crush a bully and end abuse.

Bullies, child molesters, and domestic abusers have one thing in common. They hate open and honest communication. It makes them powerless, especially because they draw their strength from secrets.

They, people allegedly like Arthur "Jerry" Sandusky from the Penn State scandal, count on any victims and occasional witnesses to cover up the destruction in a shroud of silence, leaving their misdeeds to be shared with the unfortunate few who empower them out of fear, ignorance, or lack of character.

I'm not the only one who knows it too. Half a world away in Australia, Kristin Brumm is organizing a global online event to bring awareness to domestic violence. It's called Speak Out, named after her decision to come forward and put an end to her own abusive relationship. She was lucky.

She didn't have a champion like my son. She didn't even have a witness like the one that Mike McQueary could have been. She only had herself; and frankly, she is remarkably fortunate to have found such courage even if she was unfortunate enough to find it too late and at a price too high.

Today, Brumm struggles each day to make up for her silence. She does it in a way that requires an equal measure of courage. She is helping others by asking bloggers to speak out about abuse on November 18. I'm ahead of the curve, only because I would like you to consider speaking out too.

They way I see it, the whole lot of them fall in together: teenage bullies, child molesters, and domestic abusers. All of them prey on people, trying to make themselves feel big by trying to make others feel helpless. But the truth is that none of them, whether they use physical or psychological abuse, has any more power than they are afforded. Take away their secrets and they crumble when someone calls them out.

What I told the neighborhood bully, suspending his reign. 

I didn't have to say much when I went outside, commanding him and his friends to stay off my property. I told them that there wasn't going to be a fight, not because my son wasn't ready but because I wasn't going to allow it. (Given my son possesses a second degree black belt, it would have hardly been fair.)

"My son isn't afraid to fight you, but I won't allow it," I said. "But you need to know that he would whip the shit out of you if I did allow it. So you might want to move along before I change my mind."

The kid shrugged, so I pressed.

"There isn't going to be a fight today, or tomorrow. And I'll call the cops the next time I see you here," I said, as they finally turned and started to walk away. "Am I clear? Because I can't hear you."

The kid paused for a second before burping out a timid and barely audible "Yes, sir."

But then something else happened. Much like the apparent pain caused by the initial shutdown a few days before, he recoiled as he faced is own embarrassment.

"Tell your son to mind his own business next time," he spat.

"What? No, I will not," I said. "He did the right thing. So maybe what you need to do is go home, wipe your nose, and learn how to be a man, without bullying girls. Yeah, he told me what you did. You're a punk. And I'm glad he stopped you."

He shoulders sank as he sulked away. But even more telling was how his friends reacted. When I had wandered outside, they looked to be as tight as thieves. As they turned the corner, they were frayed. His friends were obviously unaware that they had turned out to support someone who bullies girls.

The bully, I'm told, gives both the girl and my son a fairly wide berth at school. We can only hope the lessons go further than protecting the pair of them. I think it will, as long as people shut bullying down.

And therein lies the lesson. As one of my friends said when I mentioned it on Facebook a few days ago: Teaching our kids to be bully proof isn't enough. We have to teach them to stand up to it. He's right. All too often, bullies will grow up to be tomorrow's domestic abusers or child predators.

There is only one remedy. Speak out. Stand up. And shut them down. Do it today.

Monday, November 14

Applying Ethics: Penn State Is Not A PR Story

Bill Sledzik is right. The Penn State scandal is not really a public relations case study. It can't be "fixed." The only thing left to do is continue to cooperate with transparency and suggest remedies to minimize such atrocities from happening again.

Attorney General Linda Kelly described it precisely: "This is a case about a sexual predator who used his position within the university and community to repeatedly prey on young boys. It is also a case of high-ranking university officials who allegedly failed to report the sexual assault of a young boy after the information was brought to their attention, and later made false statements to a grand jury that was investigating a series of assaults on young boys."

Any potential for this case to remain within the sphere of public relations ended in 2002. And even then, the only thing that could be done would have been to advise that the incident be immediately brought to the attention of the police regardless of potential public relations fallout. That was almost 10 years ago.

There are two worthwhile discussion points: understanding ethics and bystander psychology. 

Neither Mike McQuery, who witnessed the child rape firsthand, nor head football coach Joe Paterno should have been satisfied with the decisions reportedly made by then athletic director Tim Curley or senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schulz (who also oversaw campus police).

The ethical course for McQuery is clear. He should have intervened. Or if he felt the intervention put his life at risk, he should have immediately called the police. Instead, he reportedly turned to an authority figure, his father, and subsequently Paterno. While the behavior is understandable from a psychological viewpoint, it doesn't make it right. Personal, moral, and ethical responsibility cannot be so simply surrendered by a bystander to higher authorities, even at the risk of an early career.

Likewise, the same applies to Paterno. Once it was brought to his attention, there ought to have been no question of how to proceed. While notifying Curley and indirectly Schulz of the situation would have been acceptable, the only personal, moral, and ethical course would be to report the incident to police or insist that Curley and Schulz do so.

They did not. Instead, Curley and Schulz made the wrong decision when it was brought to their attention, apparently to keep the incident from going public while trying to distance the school from future liability in the event Arthur "Jerry" Sandusky was caught again. Eventually, when the incident surfaced during testimony, concern for public exposure quickly turned to protecting themselves from criminal liability, as it often does.

If the crime did not involve the public safety of a victim (such as lying to the media about something more trivial), then the appropriate course of action could have been to confront the wrongdoer and give them an opportunity to come forward and correct their mistake (and reporting it only if they are unwilling to do so). But any time there is an immediate threat to the public safety of one or more people, there is no obligation to grant the wrongdoer any such courtesy. You stop it. You report it.

What public relations professionals need to know about the Penn State scandal.

It is not uncommon for public relations professionals, especially those in the early stages of their careers, to be asked to lie, spin, or exaggerate on behalf of companies. And, more commonly, some will attempt to exempt themselves from responsibility after passing information to an authority figure. Don't do it.

If this case can teach students anything, it is that attempting to cover up an atrocity (regardless of size) doesn't protect anyone. It only makes everyone who knows liable for a lifetime and anyone who doesn't know another potential victim. And yes, once you know, the suffering of those victims falls squarely on your shoulders, as rightly conveyed by Attorney General Kelly.

"The failure of top university officials to act on reports of Sandusky's alleged sexual misconduct, even after it was reported to them in graphic detail by an eyewitness, allowed the predator to walk free for years - continuing to target new victims," Kelly said. "Equally disturbing is the lack of action and apparent lack of concern among those same officials, and others who received information about this case, who either avoided asking difficult questions or chose to look the other way."

Partial source: grand jury presentment, Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General.

Friday, November 11

Honoring Veterans: Veterans Day

Every year, the United States honors all of the men and women who have served in the Armed Forces. And every year, me and my team have had the honor of participating in unique and memorable ways.

This year will be a bit different, more personal. But the importance of the day is no less significant on a larger scale. And in thinking of what to share to convey the point, I came across a letter written by Sergeant Joseph Morrissey in 1969.

His words, I think, best convey the sentiment of the average Joe or Jane who serves at home or far away countries, in peace and war. It reminds me, and I hope you too, that in service and sacrifice, we are often compelled to do what is best for our country even when what needs to be done runs opposite of our beliefs.

Hello Brother, 
How are you treating life these days? Have you gotten a grip on those Merrimack students yet?

This place is sort of getting to me. I've been seeing too many guys get messed up, and I still can't understand it. It's not that I can't understand this war. It's just that I can't understand war period. 

If you do not get to go to that big peace demonstration in October, I hope you do protest against the war or sing for peace — I would. I just can't believe half the shit I've seen over here so far. 

Do you know if there's anything wrong at home? I haven't heard from anyone in about two weeks, and normally I get 10 letters a week. you mentioned in your letters that you haven't heard from them for a while either. I couldn't take sitting over in this place if I thought there was anything wrong at home.

Well, brother, I hope you can get to your students and start them thinking about life. Have you tried any marijuana lectures lately? I know they dig that current stuff.

I gotta go now. Stay loose, Paul, and sing a simple song of freedom and I'll be seeing you come summer.

Joe, October 1969

The most recognized Veterans Day national ceremony is held each year on Nov. 11 at Arlington National Cemetery. This ceremony commences at 11 a.m. with a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns. It then continues in the Memorial Amphitheater with a parse of colors presented by veterans' organizations and remarks from dignitaries.

In addition to the Veterans Day services held at Arlington, there are several sites that host regional services. These services may be found on a page maintained by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. For states that do not have a regional event listed, please check with your local government.

For the rest of the world, many countries will celebrate Nov. 11 as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, a date that commemorates the armistice that ended World War I. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, November 9

Talking About Brands: It Happens Offline

As much as social media has become a powerful component of information and marketing, it still represents only a fraction of word-of-mouth marketing. According to a new study in the United Kingdom, as many as 94 percent of conversations about various brands take place offline, face to face.

The new study, released by Keller Fay's TalkTrack Britain study, an ongoing research program that tracks word of mouth in the UK on a continual basis, found that face-to-face conversations outstrip social media media conversations by a wide margin.

In fact, the study found that the largest conversation motivator is what many social media professionals claim doesn't work anymore — advertising. Right. Almost half of all offline conversations reference media and marketing, with one in five of those conversations referencing traditional advertising.

Business is not as unusual as people think. 

The study isn't exclusive to the United Kingdom. The Keller Group conducts a similar study in the U.S.

Even some of the largest brands know social media is powerful but tends to over inflate its own importance. For example, when Keller Fay looked closer at a list of the most engaging brands on Facebook, it found that the numbers behind the numbers tell the real story in the United States.

Of Coca-Cola's 34 million fans, only 56,000 are active (0.2 percent of the total). Disney's engagement is .03 percent; Starbucks, often lauded as a social media leader, is 1.3 percent; and McDonald's doesn't register (only about 3,900 fans can be considered active). Compared to offline engagement, these numbers represent a relatively small percentage of active consumers.

For example, Keller Fay Group notes that Coca-Cola enjoys 880 million offline conversations during an average month, including 442 million active recommendations to buy or try Coke. Disney enjoys 125 million offline conversations. And Starbucks, approximately 119 million conversations.

Compare these numbers to actively engaged fans on social networks, and offline word of mouth outweighs online conversations by a large margin. And the concept that one-to-many broadcasting is ineffective in today's marketplace is one of the largest overreaching statements that can be made.

And programmers that attempt to measure online influence, engagement, and sentiment are often missing the point and misleading companies. Social media doesn't exist in a vacuum, but is better described as one or several touch points as part of a much bigger integrated communication plan.

Social media has several possible functions, all of which reinforce bigger campaigns. 

The Keller Fay Group has consistently positioned itself against the grain by claiming that all media is social. It's an unpopular position that we shared almost four years ago, underscored by the idea that all great advertising is a direct conversation with the consumer.

Modified, we might even suggest that all great communication — media, marketing, advertising, or original online content — not only talks to the consumer but can also spark of conversations between consumers. Apple is one of the most pre-eminent marketers in this arena.

It manages to be the second most talked about brand in the United States and third most talked about brand in the United Kingdom. And it captures this position without a formal social media program.

But all this is not to say social media is a dead end. On the contrary, many companies are relatively dysfunctional in their approaches to social media, attempting to prompt people to artificially have conversations about a brand and considering such forced conversations some semblance of success.

The problem is people are not miniature broadcast stations. They don't talk in marketing messages. They don't categorize conversations under brand names. They don't consider how algorithms might read sentiment. Do you know what they do? We do. But we'll save all that for next week.

Monday, November 7

Targeting Attitude: Trends In Marketing

While most online attention has been skewed toward "influence," offline attention is beginning to consider attitude as a much more significant measure. It makes sense. Attitude, more than many demographic data and certainly more than online activity, can make or break a potential client.

Affinity AMS/Experian Simmons recently conducted a study that found most consumer opinions about the U.S. economy are mixed. Almost 32 percent expect economic conditions to get worse over the next 12 months and 38 percent foresee no significant change in the economic health of the country over the same period.

The suggested theory by AMS/Experian Simmons is that the smaller group — those who are optimistic about the economy — is more likely to be in the market to make certain purchases. Those who are pessimistic are not.

There is some truth to the thinking. Anyone who works for B2B businesses knows that their best clients tend to be more optimistic about the future (regardless of the economy). It's the reason they make purchases ahead of their growth curves, stock greater amounts of inventory, and ramp up marketing campaigns. Those who are pessimistic are more inclined to be overly cautious, even adversarial.

Some interesting findings from the AMS/Experian Simmons study. 

AMS/Experian Simmons researchers went deeper into the data, organizing print and digital magazine subscribers by publications and they found that the readers of certain magazines tend to be more optimistic than others.

Specifically, among website readers, Bridal Guide (55 percent), Harvard Business Reviews (49 percent), Dwell (48 percent), Outside (46 percent), Bicycling (46 percent), and Parenting (46 percent) all scored higher in optimism. Among print, Essence (50 percent), Ebony (46 percent), Jet (44 percent), Elle Decor (43 percent), New York Magazine (39 percent), and Men's Journal (39 percent) all scored higher.

To be clear, with the exception of Bridal Guide, optimism is generally not a majority. However, in comparing this data to the greater population, readers of these magazines (online or off) are beating the national average. And that may very well be significant.

The AMS/Experian Simmons study also broke out magazine subscribers in other ways too. For example, when they asked respondents whether they feel financially secure, Barron's (print), Bicycling (web), Wine Spectator (mobile), and Conde Nast Traveler (social networks) rose to the top of the list. When asked if they teach their children to be safe with money, Parenting (print), The Family Handyman (web), Country Light (mobile), and Cooking Light (social networks) rose to the top. And finally, when asked if they are good at managing money, Architectural Digest (print), Dwell (web), Kiplinger's (mobile), and Conde Nast Traveler (social networks) ranked higher than others.

Human traits and attitudes are becoming more important to marketers. 

Currently, most social media measures are designed to measure volume and mass as the two more important qualifiers of success. However, volume and mass may be the least important measures if marketers are reaching people who feel insecure about their own positions.

For example, with exception of those who have an expressed need, a car manufacturer whose message reaches an economic pessimist might as well be a wasted impression. After all, people who are pessimistic about the economy are less likely to purchase a car, especially a new one.

That doesn't necessarily mean that all of those impressions are lost, depending on the message. Car dealers convincing people that they would save money by exchanging for a lower lease, trading in a car for a lower interest rate, or stressing gas pump savings might win over some pessimists.

The point here isn't to ignore pessimistic consumers, but to get back to the businesses of matching better messages that communicate to the needs of specific consumers. Doing so removes the random mass approach and realigns sales to niche — specifically qualifying leads as opposed to assuming everyone is qualified. More importantly, it distinguishes qualified leads because even those with the same household income may have very different conclusions about any purchase based on their attitudes.

While I did not see the study published on its site, AMS has several interesting studies available. It tracks about 175 magazine brands that garner the dominant share of the marketplace.

Friday, November 4

Grabbing Attention: Spontaneous Combustion

Social media is having a dramatic impact on advertising. And sometimes its influence we could all do without. The newest online video for global climate change is the perfect example. The advertisement was created as a pro bono spot by a New York advertising agency.

The commercial has a lot going for it. It has attention-grabbing special effects. It has a reasonably clever tagline. And, on creative merit alone, it kind of works.

But it doesn't work. 

The commercial is simple enough, showing a man in a business suit, screaming into his cell phone about how he doesn't care about the environment. And slowly, as the spot evolves, he begins to smoke and catch fire until he suffers a fate right out of the paranormal playbook — spontaneous combustion.

Okay, most people will get it. The point of the spot is to target and vilify people who have doubts about global warming and climate change, playing off the pun of "liar, liar, pants on fire."

When considering how to create real positive change in the world, clever doesn't always get the job done. Sure, from a social media perspective, it has some ingredients people chase after. But let's think about what it doesn't have.

• It's a shout down, aiming to vilify as opposed to providing tangible solutions.
• It's political, designed to separate people on a specific point instead of working together.
• It's sharable, but only among people who already believe in climate change.
• It's the wrong message, because climate change doesn't only impact people who don't believe in it.
• It's very much a sleight-of-hand game, driving people to something other than an environmental group.

The spot detracts from environmental groups.

The benefactor of this spot is the William J. Clinton Foundation. The goal of the foundation is to develop sustainable businesses in Rwanda, provide meals to children in Colombia, and spread a unique model of philanthropy around the world. None of those things is bad. They are admirable. And the foundation has made progress in several areas around the world.

Climate change is a very small part of what the organization does, with its emphasis on creating initiatives that lower carbon emissions in some cities. It does not link to the Global Climate Change Initiative, as some have reported. It links to a foundation that links specific businesses to government municipalities. It helps find funding for business partners entering green energy. It provides MRV and project development to deforestation.

There is nothing wrong with any of that per se (with some exceptions that I won't address today). The foundation has done some solid work. And I expect it will continue to do so. At the same time, I cannot help but wonder whether there are better places to support and help fund climate change organizations.

The social impact on advertising detracts. 

The most powerful spot ever created with an environmental message was, without question, the crying Indian for Keep America Beautiful. (And the best non-advertisement was The Lorax.)

When you compare the crying Indian to the combustible spot, it provides a powerful contrast between advertising yesterday and advertising today. The reason the crying Indian spot worked was because it didn't vilify anyone, but showed us something about ourselves that we were ignoring and reminded us that we had a choice. It brought people together. And it didn't even need cleverness to be powerful.

Making a better climate change commercial. 

Politicizing advertising for the benefit of social media sharing sucks. Imagine how much more powerful the advertisement would have been showing us a future world where global warming had an impact, like a kid looking at a Judge Dredd city from across a barren wasteland.

The spot could then circle around from his point of view, center on his eyes, and tap into his collective memory with a collage of ancestral choices that eventually lead to his great-great grandfather (present day) making an environmental choice. With the present day character making a different choice, we can end on a very different world for the boy who appears in the opening of the spot.

The message would be something that brings people together, that neither climate change advocates nor detractors can argue. That message would have to be centered on the idea that climate change — whether mostly natural or manmade — is an invalid argument.

We all know humans contribute to climate change, and we ought not to waste time arguing about the degree to which we are responsible. If we can cut carbon emissions, be more environmentally aware, and take small actions that add up over millions and billions of people, the world would be a better place for us to live regardless.

Now that's a message more people might agree upon, much like they did when they first saw the crying Indian. Quickly clever special effects laden advertising will possibly get more attention. But there comes a point when you have to ask yourself — what good does exposure to the wrong message really do? Exactly.

Wednesday, November 2

Organizing Stories: Writing The Mushy Middle

There are hundreds of articles and blog posts that tell people how to write better. Most of them are pretty good, even if they make the work sound easier than it might be, and are overly reliant on a formula.

I poked around yesterday and found several decent ones (and most of the decent tips aren't in the top ten on search engines, but that's a different story). Here's one for blog posts. Here's one on news releases. Here's one on articles. None of them are wrong; not really. But they are all so very boring, which is probably why writers and would-be writers who apply them never seem to reach their full potential.

Maybe we can look at organizational structure differently.

All in all, stories (which includes all writing) are pretty simple animals. They have a beginning, middle, and end. And many writers, myself included, tend to tell people to think about the lead paragraph (the beginning) and the conclusion (call to action or concluding point) because they are so very important.

Well, we're right. They are so very important. But that is not to say the middle isn't important. And the more I think about it, the middle might be more important than most writers give it credit for, because it can influence the lead paragraph and often dictates if anyone will ever make it to the end.

How to structure the mushy middle and tell a better story. 

Several years ago, I was working on various news releases, articles, and advertising copy for one of the largest art events in the region. So, I was exposed to dozens of artists with different artistic styles.

One of them made these amazing wooden sculptures, animals and people cut into crude wooden branches, stumps, and driftwood. And I remember asking him how he decided what he would make on what seemed like random bits of found wood. He laughed and told me I had it all wrong.

"The wood tells me," he said. "It already knows what it wants to look like."

I think written communication is very much like that. You have to look at the entire context and have some semblance of the organizational structure, especially the middle. Most stories already know the best way they could be told, but most writers don't listen — especially those who force every one of them into the formula. (I suppose it's better than no organizational structure at all, but not really.)

It's also why I decided to call the piece the mushy middle. It's mushy because, just like the wood, it can be carved in any number of different ways. The challenge, however, is to find the best way possible.

Nine common options for writers to experiment with to make the middle work. 

• Chronological. Some stories work better in chronological order. For example, personal narratives and imaginative stories that don't concern themselves with topical constraints. The telling is as important as the content and context. Information stories are sometimes written chronologically too, especially if the writer is asking someone to do something step by step.

• Reverse Chronological. Some stories, like biographies for example, frequently work better when they start with the position someone possesses right now, and then work backwards to reveal how the person arrived at that point. Depending on the person, it's not necessarily that cut and dried but reverse chronological is a pretty good start.

• Importance. Even though they don't have to be, most news stories are written using an inverted pyramid style, sharing the most important details up front and then drifting into the remaining details. It provides readers with a big picture before adding details that might be important to the story. It works, but many writers struggle with it because they sometimes pick the wrong details to keep people reading.

• Reverse Importance. Features articles sometimes do the opposite. They might lead off with a fine detail or event before breaking into another structure, including some of those that follow. It works best when one of those fine details is something that people can relate to or feel immediately empathetic about like the example of one homeless man before breaking into a story about homeless people.

• Topical/Classification. Stories that want to share large amounts of information, like a company website or children's book (all about dogs), are generally arranged in a topical format. And while this isn't always the case, most topical structures have a pattern that flows from one point to the next. The real challenge for most writers is that they have to choose topics that naturally fit together instead of simply trying to cover all the bases.

• Spatial. Although spatial is very similar to topical, the categories are generally thought out in advance and rely on specific characteristics. A very obvious example might include motor vehicles or even hotels. Generally, when we read anything about cars, the content is broken up into interior, exterior, and engine. Hotels generally talk about property amenities, room amenities, and nearby attractions.

• Comparison-Contrast. While there are several ways to approach a comparison-contrast story, the most common is to preset various points that the writer wants to highlight while comparing two objects. It's very similar to a topical structure, except the writer might shift back and forth among the two or more objects being compared. Analogies also tend to use comparison-contrast for great effect.

• Problem-Solution. Some writers lay the foundation of a story drawing in readers to something they can all relate to, usually something annoying or even tragic, and then offering a solution to avoid the problem. There are millions of classic advertising examples that use this model. Ergo, if you are tired of "this," then maybe it's time to try "this." Personally, I love problem-solution stories that diminish the problem or don't even bother to state the problem because the problem is already understood.

• Relationship. While this structure can be more challenging for some writers, it can be extremely effective in revealing how things might work, especially in areas that involve sociology. I used it the other day to work through a bigger picture on behavior during a down economy, specifically why people might believe home value appreciation delivers a high return despite their negative feelings about the economy. But this style can be more direct too, tying together ecosystems and ancestral trees.

Those are the most common nine, but there are more structures. 

It really doesn't matter what the purpose of the story might be (blogging, advertising, journalistic, fiction, informative). All good stories eventually develop a structure, and some of the best stories develop very complex structures that weave in several smaller ones.

This column might qualify. Obviously, the bigger structure of this piece is problem-solution based. But contained within the obvious structure, you can also find: chronological, importance, topical, and relationship. Its intention is two-fold: it creates a more conversational tone and helps break up the monotony of reading (and writing) the same inverted pyrimid day after day.

It's also one of the bigger picture concepts I'm integrating into Editing & Proofreading Your Work for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) this year. The session is scheduled for Friday afternoon.

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