Wednesday, May 30

Migrating Profession: The Internet Is A Petri Dish

Five years is a long time on the Internet. In fact, it was five years ago that someone concocted the Online Identity Calculator, which has since migrated to a new address. But what the Online Identity Calculator never considered is the extent to which online identities would be out of our hands.

I'm not talking about professional criticisms, erroneous articles, or discrepancies in how we perceive ourselves compared to what has been posted online. I'm talking about the next generation who will have an online identity before they can talk. Ninety percent of them will have an online history before they are two years old, written by their parents and other relatives.

The next few years will be different too. By the time they are 5, more than 50 percent will interact with a computer or tablet. By the time they are 8, almost all of them will be playing video games and reading (if not participating) with associated forums. By the time they are preteens or early teens, they will open a Facebook account (even though you must be 13 to legally join the site). And by the time they are teens, they will spend more time with media than their parents and teachers combined.

It's improbable to believe that the open, media-driven world that today's children are being born into won't have an impact on them, infinitely greater than television did to the generations before them. In this new world, they aren't just tuning in to find entertainment — they are the entertainment, for better or worse. Along with every triumph posted, some parents delight in sharing tragedies too — unerasable bits of information that establishes our online identity before we even have an identity offline.

As media and technology change people, psychologists will migrate to the space. 

Although psychology ranks relatively high on the list of degrees leaving recent grads unemployed or underemployed, the field is already beginning to add another layer as a viable potential career path. Psychologists don't have to settle for the proverbial choice of listening to people's problems or teaching mice to press bars for cheese.

The subset to watch is media psychology (for lack of a better term), and the directional choices a psychologist might take it in are as diverse as the application. Sure, marketers and advertisers (the good ones anyway) always considered psychology and sociology as assets. But compared to the greater number of psychologists working in the field, relatively few focused on communication and media.

That's not going to be the case anymore, given that media has become so intertwined into our lives that it is somewhat difficult to separate the two — even more so than all those babies who were born into a world that celebrates their arrival with increased exposure to the world, e.g., public Facebook posts have replaced semi-public baby announcements. And that's only the beginning of media psychology.

• Marketing. The primary reason marketers sometimes struggle with determining ROI on the web is because most of them have no scientific or psychological training to boost their understanding of the human experience. Few of them run studies with control groups, preferring to guess at analytics instead of knowing the truth behind the abundance of measurements at their disposal. Expect psychologists and sociologists to be working with marketers and network programmers in the near future.

• Public Perception. Along with marketing, public policy and socio-economics could use a lift. With legislators listening too keenly to the loudest voices online, psychologists would add real research into the mix to determine the "why" behind any outcry. This would be an asset, given many political decisions are knee-jerk responses instead of an attempt to truly understand where people might be on any given topic. (Ergo, people are more likely to sacrifice liberties after a highly visible threat, but then push back as the threat becomes less immediate.)

• Societal Change. Some psychologists have already noted that media and social media shape our perception of reality (accidentally, purposefully, and cohesively). Psychologists can treat entire populations as their petri dish. They know it too. Some are already starting to study why types of individuals use social networks for what purposes and how — much like some dedicated significant time studying whether or not violent television programs make the world a meaner place.

• Real-time Psychology. Sooner or later, we might anticipate some psychologists who work with individuals to consider the Internet as a tool to provide greater insight into the social interactions their clients have with others online. One can only imagine what this might look like 20 years from now, when psychologists look online to not only track social interactions but also scroll back to early family photos and random posts. Who knows too, what kind of psychological stigmas might be created as some parents not only reinforce a child's potential to be one way or another, but also post semi-permanent evidence in the process.

Personally, I have always seen psychology and sociology as critical components of communication planning and message development. But it seems to me that those professions might see a boost in relevance in the years ahead. After all, if social media has changed anything it is that we've given permission to let people study us as a public. You might be surprised by what they find.

To illustrate (although it might make its own post someday), I remember an old sociology project in college that asked us to team with a partner and then study three or four of their high school yearbooks. Based on the information those yearbooks contained, the best students (with surprising accuracy) could outline various niche groups within the school, what they liked, and how they behaved toward others.

Now imagine the same thing online, except without the confines of a few years and a handful of pictures. If a narrow field of information could reveal so much about people, then the vastness of the net could open up almost anything.

Monday, May 28

Honoring Sacrifices: Memorial Day

"We come, not to mourn our dead soldiers, but to praise them." — Francis A. Walker

Last year, on Memorial Day, I included a list of nonprofit organizations working to preserve the memories of fallen soldiers who served in the United States Armed Forces. These men and women, who served their country and gave the ultimate sacrifice, have earned our admiration as all those who serve do.

This year, I wanted to draw attention to something else. Often times the sacrifices they make in service to our country are not exclusively their own. As sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, they are other people who also bare these sacrifices in life.

Among the best known survivors are American War Mothers, especially those distinguished as Gold Star Mothers, women who have lost a son or daughter in service to their county. And it is their stories that help put the sacrifices of our soldiers into perspective.

And along with these women who carry on in the face of tragedy, are the men and women who served alongside them. There are more than 23 million of them, veterans of the Armed Forces who live, work, and play in your hometown. They remember, unable to forget the sacrifices made for and by others.

And along with them, there are hundreds and thousands of children who made sacrifices too. To help them cope and learn to live with loss is the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), which provides an immediate connection; and Children Of Fallen Soldiers, which is dedicated to helping mentor these children to help them achieve their dreams. Here is a clip that helps explain TAPS, the first programs mentioned.

These videos, whether viewed independently or alone, hopefully convey a different message about Memorial Day. Many people from around the world have the mistaken notion that Memorial Day is an extension of national pride in the United States. In reality, when it is observed, it a somber reminder of a people who value peace, appreciate the cost of conflict, and understand the sacrifice of too many.

A Brief Perspective On Memorial Day.

Even its establishment, originally as Decoration Day, was not a celebration of war but rather the efforts of formerly enslaved African-Americans to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War who died for their freedom. Later, Southern states held their own Memorial Days, helping rebind the common cause of this country and by 1866, both Union and Confederate casualties were commemorated.

Later still, the holiday began to include the casualties of other conflicts, servicemen and women who may not have died in the country's internal conflict over freedom but rather in conflicts related to freedom all over the world.

While many American observe this day differently, the least people are asked to do is to pause for minutes at 3 p.m. (their time zone) for the National Moment of Remembrance. The goal of this moment is understood. It is a call to remember that the price of freedom is never free. The cost of it is paid for with the lives of brave men and women in an instant, and then by their families forever. Good night and good luck.

Friday, May 25

Humanizing Business: Brand Research, Part 3 of 3

The Relational Capital Group (RCG) published some compelling brand research across seven different white papers in the April 2012 edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology. As a continuation of our RCG research review, which began with Four Brand Dynamics Every Marketer Ought To Know and Three Critical Questions To Ask About Brand Relationships, the third abstract to focus on is the paper by Nicolas Keryn, Susan Fiske, and Chris Malone.

The abstract builds upon the Stereotype Content Model and tests several brands against the Intentional Agents Framework, which suggests consumers have relationships with brands much like they have with people. The study has the potential to change the way marketers think about brands and interactions with customers, consumers, and the general public.

People And How They Relate To Brands.

The concept that people relate to brands much in the same way they relate to people (and objects) has been around for more than a decade. The paper cites several studies, some dating back to 1998.

Although early research frequently refers to models of social perception developed in social psychology, we noticed that there is considerable crossover (not referenced in the paper) in the field of cognitive psychology. Simply put, cognitive psychology recognizes that people categorized people, places, things, qualities, etc. in groupings. This is an asset because it aids recall and association. It can also be a detriment because it provides the framework for stereotypes, incorrect or otherwise.

We can see this phenomenon in one of the examples provided by researchers. By asking people to assign warmth and competence to a variety of groups, they identify different groups as warmer or colder, more or less competent. For example, wealthy people might be seen as more competent but colder. The disabled as less competent and warmer. (Neither is necessarily true, I might add.)

Brands were categorized in much the same way. In the study, for example, Campbell's, Johnson & Johnson, and Coca-Cola all scored high in terms of warmth (intention) and competence (ability). Mercedes, Porsche and Rolex scored lower on warmth but high on ability. Veterans's Hospital, Public Transport and USPS scored high on warmth and low on ability. And AIG, BP and Goldman Sachs all scored low on competence and low on ability. (The paper includes 16 brands.)

It was mostly these brand clusters that suggested the combination of warmth (intentions) and competence (ability) was formed. These were also paired against another framework model, which showed how brands elicited feelings of pity, admiration, envy, and contempt.

Expectedly, the study found that well-intentioned brands received much higher warmth ratings. Unexpectedly, high ability brands also received slightly higher ratings, suggesting that brands with high  ability (those that do what they say they will do) have an advantage. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that marketers ought to strive for warmth and competence.

Although the researchers did not identity the correlation, the difference between brands scoring higher or lower on warmth is frequently tied to accessibility and frequency of contact as much as good intentions. Even brands that have earned public contempt are further hampered by their distance from the consumer, with many of their products being passed through to the consumer by another party.

What Does This Mean For Marketers And Brands?

While it only scrapes the surface, tempering the findings of this paper with the article presented by Jennifer Aaker, Emily Harbinsky, and Kathleen Vohs could be critical in any decision making. They argue that while warmth and competence is an ideal pursuit for many brands, they also found that competency is more important than warmth in spurring consumers to purchase.

One may also surmise that brands that do not naturally fit into a persona of warmth could undermine their own competence if they try too hard to exhibit that quality. In fact, the Aaker, Harbinsky, Vohs paper notes that brands that are overtly warm (like nonprofits) can unintentionally reduce the perception that they are competent. They also note that other brands, those that earn too much admiration, begin to express another emotion that wasn't necessity tested for in the original studies. That emotion is awe.

What this means for marketers and advertisers from our perspective is how important it is to tie the four brand dynamics and marketing messages to the observed mission, vision, and value statements. By observed, I mean mission, vision, and values that are actually being applied in every facet of operation (not those that collect dust in old annual reports).

It also suggests how companies ought to prioritize their overall operational objectives to how they want to position the company in the marketplace (as well as the appropriateness of that position), with an emphasis on competence (high quality products and services). And, although the researchers did not include for it, unless the company is trying to be disruptive in a space, degrees of warmth and competence can also be tied to the overall feelings people have toward an industry, the accessibility of the brand, and the frequency in which people come into contact with it.

To learn more about the papers and abstracts released to the study by RCG, visit their page dedicated to the research. The company specializes in the principles, process and science of lasting, mutually-beneficial business relationships. This study is groundbreaking in its ability to tie scientific data to long-standing theories within the fields of advertising, communication, and marketing.

Wednesday, May 23

Humanizing Business: Brand Research, Part 2 of 3

The Relational Capital Group (RCG) published some compelling brand research across seven different white papers in the April 2012 edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology. As a continuation of our RCG research review, which began with Four Brand Dynamics Every Marketer Ought To Know, we look to the extension published by Deborah MacInnis.

While the original research concludes that consumers judge and interact with brands in much the same way they do with other people and social groups, it also suggests that brands which exhibit warmth and competence have an easier time establishing trust and long-term loyalty. MacInnis questions that conclusion, recognizing that relationships to people and objects are much more complex than that.

In fact, she suggests that warmth and competence are not necessarily traits for brands to exhibit as much as they might be outcomes related to the people involved in the relationship. In other words, when consumers trust a brand, they may judge the brand to be competent (trusted to do the job) and warm (trusted to have my best interest at heart) whether the brand exhibits those traits or not.

Three Critical Questions To Ask About Brand Relationships.

How Impacting Are Relationship Types? MacInnis suggests that if consumers do develop relationships with brands like they do with people, then the varied degrees of relationships might apply. For example, some brands might secure a committed partnership (best friends) while others might be emotionally intense but short lived, like a fling.

If this is true, marketers might consider the true psychological weight of social media, which tends to create more intense but superficial relationships en masse than committed relationships. In fact, many online connections are causal in that people who are already committed to brands seek out online relationships with those brands. They also require significant affirmation that the brand can live up to the relationship that they have come to expect offline.

Are There Consequences In Relationships? In practical terms, communication professionals generally believe that brands which are more trusted, competent, and warm are more likely to survive a crisis than brands that are perceived as cold or less competent. But MacInnis suggests that this might not be the case. She surmises that  the more committed a consumer is to a brand, the greater the impact any infraction might cause.

This idea correlates well with our Fragile Brand Theory, which suggests that the further brand perception drifts from brand reality, the greater the eventual crash. Where warmth and competence might help facilitate forgiveness are likely confined to one-time innocent mistakes. BP provides an excellent case study in this area, given the company had established a trusted position as leading the way in green energy, which one careless accident quickly undermined and angered people.

Does Everyone Become Attached The Same Way? There has been other research conducted on how people interact with and attach to objects that might be relevant here. From those studies, researchers have noted that there are additional relationship influencers, such as the degree of relationship anxiety people have or the degree of relationship avoidance they may have.

In such cases, some might require reassurance of the relationship status while others might avoid such attachment all together. The reason this is significant is that it demonstrates how warmth and competence might appeal more heavily toward one personality type than another. "Specifically, whereas brand warmth may be critical to individuals whose attachment styles are characterized by high anxiety, it may actually be a relationship deterrent to those whose attachment styles are characterized by high avoidance," MacInnis wrote.

The takeaway here for marketers is that even if evidence suggests that brand relationships occur much like individual or group relationships, it doesn't mean that marketing will be even easier. If anything, the conscientious marketer will recognize that brand relationships are as challenging to maintain as any relationship.

From our perspective, the relationship does not always occur by a brand's ability to exhibit certain admirable traits, but rather its ability to do what it says it is going to do. Ergo, one would assume that if warmth and competence are always the advantage, then an airline like Spirit Airlines could not exist. Instead, what we learn is that Spirit Airlines sets an exceptionally cold expectation (in potentially charging people for bathroom usage) but consumers accept it because the company is up front about it.

To learn more about the papers and abstracts released to the study by RCG, visit their page dedicated to the research. The company specializes in the principles, process and science of lasting, mutually-beneficial business relationships. This study is groundbreaking in its ability to tie scientific data to long-standing theories within the fields of advertising, communication, and marketing.

Monday, May 21

Humanizing Business: Brand Research, Part 1 of 3

The Relational Capital Group (RCG) published some compelling brand research across seven different white papers in the April 2012 edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology. It was conducted in collaboration with social psychologists at Princeton University and University of Louvain.

The overall conclusion suggests evidence that consumers judge and interact with brands in much the same way they do with other people and social groups. As a result, brands that exhibit warmth and competence have a greater ability to establish trustworthiness and long-term loyalty.

"It turns out that recent efforts by brands and companies to digitize, automate and outsource their interactions with consumers are fundamentally at odds with the way humans perceive, judge and build loyalty to brands," said Chris Malone, co-author of the lead research paper and chief advisory officer of the Relational Capital Group. "As a result, consumers are more cynical, distrustful and disloyal toward large brands and companies than ever before." 

After studying the seven interrelated abstracts, I thought it might be useful to explore and highlight several of them this week in three parts, with the first abstract highlighted [Journal of Consumer Psychology 22 (2012), 186-190] written by Kevin Lane Keller, professor of marketing, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College. From the Keller abstract, marketers can extract four brand dynamics.

Four Brand Dynamics Every Marketer Ought To Know.

Brand Knowledge. It is broadly defined as all the attributes, benefits, images, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and experiences that become associated with a brand or, in other words, represents the collective exposure someone might have to a brand. As my firm has said before, it can be generally defined as the net sum of all positive and negative experiences as they are tied to brand equity.

Brand Functionality. One of the standout observations in Keller's paper notes that while some brands attempt to appeal to consumers by focusing on image, the most successful brands tend to first ensure that their products and services are made, sold, advertised, and discussed in a way that profoundly affects consumers in the head and the heart. It underpins what I call the Fragile Brand Theory in that everything begins with the product or service and not the "image."

Brand Credibility. Most brand credibility is established not by what brand says, but what it does (and what it says about what it has done). It is best established by their ability to provide products and services that fully satisfy customer needs (which is sometimes offset by the expectations they make); their ability to be honest, dependable, and sensitive to those needs; and their ability to be likable (fun, interesting, dynamic, or any other personality descriptor). For most brands, establishing credibility seems to be much easier than maintaining it.

Brand Resonance. Keller introduces the concept as it refers to the nature of the consumer–brand relationship and, more specifically, the extent to which a person feels that he or she resonates or connects with a brand and feels “in sync” with it. It conjures the words of Phil Dusenberry, former chair of BBDO Worldwide, who seemed to know this instinctively.

The Impact Of Duplicity Between Functionality And Resonance.

One of the most pressing challenges for marketers is operating within the confines of communication that makes sense for the individual brand. Ideally, as outlined above, the most successful brands develop specific products or services that meet customer expectations, and then communicate that functionality in such a way that it connects with select customers.

Instead, where some brands struggle is in their attempt to alter communication with the hope of reflecting a personality or image that appeals to the public (or segmented market) even if those qualities they communicate do not exist. Within social media, others adopt "popular personas" that appear to be successful on specific social networks, even if that image does not reflect their functionality of the brand.

As an illustration, imagine a mediocre technology company attempting to talk its way into being on the cutting edge of its field. While the "talk" might attract attention, it could also set expectations too high for a company more suited to push affordability. Another example might be how many companies attempt to create likability by being fun on a social network like Twitter, but then staffing their brick and motor locations with drones who would rather be somewhere else.

Unfortunately, such tactics tend to create the perception of duplicity between the brand functionality and its resonance, much like Malone pointed out. As a result, the brand continually loses credibility until it eventually collapses. Conversely, marketers that are able to address both their strengths and shortcomings in an authentic way that makes sense for their products, services, and culture stand to have an easier time connecting with consumers and establishing brand loyalty.

To learn more about the papers and abstracts released to the study by RCG, visit their page dedicated to the research. The company specializes in the principles, process and science of lasting, mutually-beneficial business relationships. This study is groundbreaking in its ability to tie scientific data to long-standing theories within the fields of advertising, communication, and marketing.

Friday, May 18

Marketing To Hispanics: Think People First

Ten percent. That is the number of people in the United States who can trace their ancestry to Mexico. It doesn't include any other Hispanic or Latino cultural connections, which is why I'm sometimes baffled by the way companies try to segment Hispanics and the way some Hispanic organizations suggest those companies market to Hispanics.

If you ask most of these companies and consultants, they seem to think Hispanic marketing means adding Spanish messages to their marketing mix or making a Hispanic media buy. The Forbes article (referenced above) even highlights a Volkswagen spot as an example.

It features two white guys who listen to a Spanish tape during a car trip. At the end of the spot, they speak Spanish. That's it?

Don't misunderstand me, it's a brilliant little spot. But the reason that it works has nothing to do with dropping in Spanish. The spot is about gas mileage, which is a cross-cultural message. It could have been French and had the same impact. It just feels more relevant given the increasing number of people who speak Spanish (as a first and as a second language).

I might be more convinced if they added subtitles for English or dropped the subtitles for Spanish. But more than that, I don't believe Hispanic marketing simply means adding foreign flags, select fashions, subtitles, and actors who look the part. It's about doing your homework and understanding cultural values while avoiding cultural sensitivities. 

But doesn't this apply to everyone? Depending on your product and your market, it always makes sense to consider cultural values and sensitivities. It could be any group, even those that aren't based on heritage. It might include socio-economics, job description, faith, or political views too.

Likewise, it seemed disingenuous that the thrust of the article suggests that companies sustain a dialogue with Hispanic consumers rather than trying to push a message with monologue.

The secret to market segmentation is listening to individuals over groups. 

The dialogue tip isn't exclusive to Hispanics — it's a marketing lesson that includes everyone. And therein lies the problem with choosing market segmentation based on demographics alone. Marketers really need to do their homework and have a dialogue with consumers because Hispanic has become too big of a segment to work.

In the United States, for example, Hispanic is usually defined by the government as "persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Central or South American, or other Spanish or Portuguese culture or origin, regardless of race." Each of these sub-segments are as unique as the various sub-segments by the overly generic term Asian. And in some cases, those subgroups can be segmented too (Mexico is a big country, with many regional and urban-rural differences if you take the time to listen).

So where does that leave us? Hispanic marketing seems like a good idea today because research points to a rapidly growing Hispanic population that retains a significant amount of their cultural heritage (more so than many European immigrants). But over the long term, the Hispanic culture in the United States will not be synonymous with Hispanic culture as it is identified today.

It will eventually be something else, which it already has if you consider just how different Hispanics in California are when compared to Hispanics in Texas (or how different Californians and Texans are for that matter). In other words, marketing segmentation works but it works its best when marketers assess their entire customer base instead of trying to appeal to national demographics. Think global, act local.

In fact, it might surprise some to learn that the difference between Apple and Droid consumers is greater than the difference between Hispanic and non-Hispanic smart phone subscribers.

Wednesday, May 16

Segmenting Publics: Can Online Moms Be Segmented?

MWW published an interesting, albeit curious, survey on the behavior of moms online. According to the mid-sized agency, moms can be broken into five types as illustrated by the nifty graphic (which links to the the agency's infographic). The study alludes to the idea that not all moms are created equal.

It's very, very dangerous territory to tread; I even thought twice before sharing it. But then I thought I might offer up why over-segmentation sometimes backfires. Before I do, here are the five types of digital moms they identified:

• Mobilizers. The youngest segment (average age 33) is hyper-connected, driven by the desire to connect with friends, and interested in pop culture. They are easily influenced by celebrities and prefer mobile devices as their primary tool for staying connected.

• Urban Originals. The smallest, most influential segment of digital moms (average age 35) lives in mostly urban areas, view themselves as influencers, and frequently interact on social networks. They also create 90 percent of the content generated by moms and are the biggest influencers.

• Practical Adopters. The working moms segment (average age 45) uses digital technology to harmonize their professional and personal lives and manage their families. They are too busy to be on the cutting edge. They look to urban originals and mobilizers to keep up on trends.

• Casual Connectors. The lowest average income segment (average age 47) uses digital technology to connect with their close circle of family and friends (particularly their children) and are influenced by the preceding groups. They prefer simple technology and few have adopted smart phones.

• Wallflowers. This segment of digital moms (average age 34) prefers to browse and consume content rather than create it. More than half are full-time homemakers, and are visual and entertainment focused. These moms are highly interested in tablets, read what others share, and enjoy sites like Pinterest.

My advice? It's an interesting attempt, but never confuse online behavior with demographics. 

I've worked with lots of moms online for the better part of a decade. I tend to agree with another study that suggests moms know best. Not some of them or certain segments, but all of them all the time.

Beyond the case studies I mentioned in the moms know best brief, I've also seen them at work on very large-scale projects that range from the cancellation of the television series Jericho and shaping of Days Of Our Lives to social good campaigns like Human Rights and March of Dimes (and scores of others).

And in observing or working with all them (including the demographics captured by MWW), I've noticed only one thing is certain. When faced with an issue they care passionately about (or their friends feel passionately about), moms will jump these so-called spheres faster than you can blink.

Further, the concept of micro-targeting along these lines is also fraught with peril and misses opportunities. You never really know when a wallflower might become the rally point or pass it to her long-time friend who happens to be a quasi-celebrity. In fact, it was one of these under-the-radar moms that connected the Bloggers United: Human Rights campaign to Amnesty International because she was only one degree of separation away.

If you want to create a micro-targeting effort, don't consider supposed behavior styles as the model to follow. What you really want to do is look at their areas of interest, which is how most people are motivated online. Don't waste time chasing influencers because they don't exist. Nurture relationships with like-minded people. Otherwise, you might as well start assigning them klout scores.

Monday, May 14

Making Bottle Rockets: Plan, Test, Execute

The unceremonious flight of my son's science project took place on the night before the project was due. The bottle rocket that his teacher intended to jettison 20 to 50 feet in the air using water and compressed air sailed through the air on its own, not outside like it was intended, but inside after it was hurled across room in frustration.

"What the heck?!?" 

"It's not working. Humfph,"was all my son said.

He had an ambitious idea to bring more than a neon green 2-liter bottle to school for his experiment, which is a good thing. But he also had the idea to mount the thin edge of his air foil fins to the outside of the bottle, which wasn't such a good thing. There simply wasn't enough surface area on the fin to attach it to the curvature of the bottle. 

That in itself wouldn't have been a big deal. What was a big deal was that it was already 9 p.m. and the project was due the next day. He needed a redesign, which also required me to keep some of my parental angst about procrastination from adding too much insult to injury (although I might have mentioned an X-box vacation; meaning for the X-box, not him). 

Three little words that could save most small business social media programs. 

Plan. Test. Execute. Those three little words that could have saved my son's bottle rocket from suffering the same fate as the Vanguard TV3, which was the first attempt of the United States to launch a rocket into outer space and crashed onto the liftoff pad after flying four feet. It could also save most small business social media programs. 

What my son did to his science project is what most people do in social media. Whatever they see being done looks so easy and effortless that they rush toward completion. But the rub of this kind of thinking is always the same. If it looks so easy that anybody could do it, it's anything but easy. 

This is why social media programs are launched every day without any foresight. Many small businesses (and big businesses too) take the advice of enthusiasts to jump right in for success. But much like the thin edges of a foil fin, they never plan their with enough surface area to stick. 

What surface area am I talking about? Content that connects. If you haven't planned out the kind of content you are offering — articles, videos, white papers, bon mots — and why that content might be important to the people you want to attract, who's going to care about what you share? (Certainly somebody will care, just not the millions that seem to make up most social media success stories.) 

Plan. What topical spheres make sense for your customers? How often will you be able to produce it? What do you intend to do when you don't have anything to produce? How does it contrast against what everybody else is already offering? And what's going to make it stick with your select group?

Test. Just because you can think it, doesn't mean it will work. I still remember one of my marketing teachers (a former engineer) who lamented having built one of the first working hovercrafts in the 1970s. They built and sold a few, just not enough to keep the doors opens. 

Execute. Once you are reasonably sure the idea will work, then you can execute, measure, and adjust. And, if you have enough foresight, it might not be a bad idea to have a contingency plan too. The web's virtual landfills already have too many abandoned blogs and social network accounts. 

For my son, the solution was easy enough. While I feigned disinterest to see what he was going to do, I sketched out three possible solutions. He could glue pre-slotted cardboard panels to the bottle, with the fins sliding into the slots. He could cut the fins, splaying the bottom inch or so to create more surface area. Or he could find clear packing tape that would provide support on both sides of the fin. 

The testing phase ruled out the first two ideas. There was no more cardboard and cutting the fins carried too much risk. Using the clear packaging tape was perfect, maybe even better than anyone hoped. It held the fins in place without obstructing the paint job. For additional stability, he added drops of glue at the top and bottom of all three fins, where they connected to the bottle. Done.

Sure, had he invested more time into the planning, the fins might have even been shaped to be more aerodynamic in order to give his bottle rocket more lift. But considering the quick fix became the contingency plan, he settled for cosmetics. Some social media plans do too, but never as well as they could have if someone had sketched out a plan before they hit 'join.'

Friday, May 11

Changing Media: PR Pros Need To Follow

While more public relations pros (those that aren't too niche) know the scope of their work exceeds media relations, it's still important to keep up with some of the changes journalists are making every day. Recently, Ragan's PR Daily highlighted one change. Phone interviews are becoming past tense.

Ragan Daily cites a number of reasons that this is becoming true, including the relative ease of finding sources on social networks. But even more than that, most people (reporters and sources) agree that email interviews can sometimes be more efficient.

Every question is laid out. Every question is answered. The margin of error in misquoting someone is almost eliminated. And there are no wasted minutes trying to navigate the chain of command to sync something as a schedule to make the call.

The trend can easily be debated. There are plenty of reasons reporters would want to conduct a phone interview or possibly conduct one in person (especially if they want to sniff out a better story). There are also plenty of reasons a client might want one too (it creates a better opportunity to establish a rapport).

Journalists are evolving beyond email interviews too; public relations pros take note. 

When Bruce Spotleson, publisher of Greenspun Media, spoke to my Writing For Public Relations class a few months ago, he was very clear about changes that are occurring in journalism. And much of it doesn't sound like journalism as most public relations pros were introduced to it.

Nowadays, journalists are asked to consider the tone of a story for the web as well as print. All of them take cameras wherever they go. Most of them are armed with video cameras (or smart phones too).

Understanding social media is an absolute must. Not only do they use social networks for sources, but they listen intently — looking for potential stories, trends, and the occasional dust up. The idea that journalism is somehow separate from the Internet anymore just doesn't ring true.

Along with a more visible presence online, many are being asked to be more presentable offline. I'm not talking about suits and ties like journalists wore before becoming an acknowledged profession. But I am talking about being presentable enough to appear on camera or, on occasion, bring eyewitness testimony to bear on specific events. Even if the paper never runs the video, all of it makes for great archives.

All in all, the future journalist is going to be much more malleable with the times, virtually fusing the distinctions that people used to see between print reporters and television news teams. In the very near future, they will be one and the same with some emphasis on web trends.

Right, newspapers are tracking web trends with IT departments making suggestions based on which stories are read, how long they are read, and how much they are shared. While this doesn't necessarily mean reporters won't use old-school strategies for investigative pieces, it does impact the general fodder that is published every day — and might even impact which sources are chosen long term.

Where public relations professionals ought to take note if they haven't already. 

Ten years ago, it was relatively easy to distinguish strategic communicators (e.g., corporate communications) with public relations. Strategic communicators were most commonly generalists in their practice. Public relations professionals were generally specific, with an emphasis on external communication to specific publics (of which the media were one).

Anymore, it's not so easy to tell the difference. Public relations professionals and corporate communication professionals pass tasks back and forth all the time. And who is responsible for what is more dependent on the employer than the field.

Still, I don't think corporate communicators will be the driver to change public relations. I am starting to believe media will be the driver. If journalists become multifaceted professionals who are social media/social network savvy, video proficient, and occasionally offer on-air commentary, then it stands to reason public relations professionals will have to match those skill sets and then some.

Wednesday, May 9

Appreciating Education: Lessons From Five Teachers

"The most decisive factors in education are the student's hunger for knowledge and willingness to learn, coupled with the teacher's passion in their material and faith that the student is capable of learning anything." — Rich Becker

After teaching as an adjunct instructor for continuing education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for more than 12 years, I don't believe anything else matters in education. It's one of the things I learned this year from my gang of six (the smallest class size since I started teaching).

After I racked my head trying to determine why this group broke all previous records and vetted every other possibility, there wasn't anything left. These students delivered 100 percent attendance, 100 percent assignment completion, 100 percent rewrite completion, and did extra credit (even if they didn't need to).

Every student showed marked improvement, approximately two letter grades, with four of the six either earning or having the potential to earn better than 90 percent. In other words, the equivalent of an "A" in a professional field that I frequently tell students consistently produces "C" level work, with few standouts.

In previous years, only one student typically scored better than 90. Last year, not even one of them did.

My original thought was that their performance was the by-product of class size, the general evolution of my presentation material, or because I literally read the five things writers need to teach themselves out loud. But it really wasn't any of those things. At the end of the day, this class was hungry for knowledge and had a willingness to learn. It made my job easy because I am passionate about communication (especially written and visual communication) and believe anyone can learn it better than the industry's low standard.

Teacher Appreciation Week Is May 7-11, 2012. 

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week. And even though teaching is something that I can only afford to do part time, I thought it would be fitting to thank five teachers who probably had the most influence on how I teach today, along with what they taught me beyond their subject material.

Richard Pyle (7th grade, junior high school). He taught me to always work outside comfort zones because it is outside our comfort zone that we are most likely to find something that will change our lives.

Ms. Duffy (9th grade, high school). She taught me that we're not doomed to repeat history as long as we're smart enough to study it and understand it without putting our own bias into it.

Betty Sabo (9-12th grade, high school). She taught me that we alone ultimately make our own choices and, in doing so, determine whatever outcomes come our way.

Warren Lerude (sophomore/senior year, college). He taught me how perception makes most of us only one or two questions away from changing our minds despite our strongest convictions.

Ron Cooney (junior year, college). He taught me the most clever idea in the world isn't worth beans unless it can be executed and then presented in such a way that it delivers results.

These lessons had an impact on how I teach because I include them in my own lessosn: the importance of research, the ability to be empathetic, the character to be accountable, the courage to challenge ourselves, and the fearlessness to pursue our dreams.

It might not be what one expects from people who taught subjects like reading, history, forensics, media law, or copywriting. But one has to have an open mind for those teachers who have the audacity to believe in you. I'm grateful. And I hope that you have teachers who have touched your lives too.

Monday, May 7

Learning From Rock Stars: Mike Posner On Brands

Ever since I can remember, people have likened being in social media to being a rock star. But is it really?

After watching the Vans Warped Tour: No Room For Rockstars this weekend, there is little doubt in my mind. There really isn't a parallel between social media and the music industry — unless, of course, you really do have an act.

"At the end of the day, I'm a brand, you know. Well, me as a person is not a brand," says Mike Posner. "But me as an act, Mike Posner, is a brand."

At 24, Mike Posner gets it. He is signed with RCA. As a pop/hip hop artist, he is as good or better than anyone in his genre. He also has 1.7 million Facebook likes, better than most "social media rock stars."

Although I admit that his music isn't my thing, Posner is the real deal. And the reason I admire him is that he understands the difference between brands (acts or companies) and individuals (people). At the same time, he also understands the value of the brand and why it's important not to blow it.

"Every piece of music that I put out is part of that brand," says Mike. "Every partnership that I enter into has to make sense to my brand. Or, I don't do it."

A few days ago, I wrote about why a brand is not a person and how to be a person without worrying about your brand. But like most posts that touch on personal branding, the only people who really read them already understand the difference between brands and people. The ones who don't understand the difference are more inclined to read something else like, you know, how to improve your online brand.

This is also one of reasons that I liked Posner's insights so much. There doesn't have to be a distinction between your so-called personal brand and professional brand (unless your professional brand is an act) because the context defines the difference. Posner can be a bit different on stage than he is off stage.

In fact, another artist on the Vans Warped Tour: No Room For Rockstars lamented that sometimes he struggles with who people want him to be. Another talked about how much they appreciate every fan (without asking for influence scores and online credentials). And yet another said that the music and business are different, enough so that it often pays to keep them separate.

But unlike rock stars, most professionals aren't supposed to be different on stage and off because, unless they are speakers/teachers on a stage, there is no stage. Online, people want professionals to be authentic much like they want rock stars to be authentic. And, for the most part, they are some of the most authentic, down-to-earth people I know. Why? Most of them save the acting for their performances. Right. The better the performances, the less you need to worry about the brand.

Friday, May 4

Finding Empathy: Can Anybody Do It?

Journalist, author, and screenwriter John Buchanan might have touched a nerve with his recent article, Anger Management, for the Conference Review Board. The article uses three high profile crisis communication scenarios of their own making in 2011: Netflix, Bank Of America, and Verizon.

Two of the three are still included on the "10 most hated companies in America." And then he points out why the three companies failed so miserably. They didn't make bad decisions, he wrote, they lacked empathy. I'm glad to read it. Empathy seems to be in short supply in business and communication

Maybe if business students studied empathy, ethics would be easier too. 

Empathy is the capacity to recognize and share feelings that are being experienced by another sentient or semi-sentient being. (Or, if you prefer, it's the ability to identify the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.) Most people don't apply it very often because the problem isn't limited to businesses.

Last year, Scientific American covered a study that found almost 75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago. What makes this especially frightening is that even though empathy is innate (even primates have it), social context overwrites it.

People are more inclined to make decisions based on their needs, exclusive of others. And when you look at the three case studies offered up by Buchanan, that is exactly what you will find. All three had to improve their bottom lines. And all three considered their options, exclusive of their customers.

It wasn't until all three received customer pushback via social media that they reversed their decisions. But even those reversals aren't really social media triumphs as much as temporary surrenders. Chances are that no one learned to be more empathetic. Their reversals were a means to quell the backlash.

Empathy isn't about picking sides, which is why people misunderstand it. 

Two of the assignments that students who take my Writing For Public Relations class receive are also lessons in empathy. One involves delivering bad news for a company forced to lay off workers. Another involves an employee who is hurt on the job (possibly because of a safety violation).

Inevitably, there are two common directions students take in handling the assignments. Either students ignore empathy all together and get on with what they perceive as the job or they exhibit empathy toward whomever they see as the underdog. But neither solution is truly empathetic and here's why.

Empathy isn't about understanding how underdogs feel. It's about understanding how everyone feels.

Last year, one of the better articles about empathy was written by Guy Winch for Psychology Today. He titled it "How to Test Your Empathy." I'm glad he titled it that because there are dozens of misleading empathy questionnaires and quizzes  online (e.g., feeling empathy during a movie doesn't mean beans). Instead of a questionnaire, he asks his readers to imagine one scenario. That's all it takes.

Believe it or not, I first learned about empathy because of my work in advertising. It was one of several great lessons written by David Ogilvy. "The consumer is not an idiot," he said. "She's your wife."

Wednesday, May 2

Fizzling Out: Kony 2012

While some people are calling Kony 2012 a resounding success to be emulated, others are pointing to what they called a paltry turnout to "cover the night" with Kony 2012 posters last April 20. The campaign failed to move people from the Internet to the streets beyond the gathering of a few people in select areas.

It's one of the failings of viral social media campaigns that fail to redirect interest and energy into a tangible outcome. People might have piled on the campaign online, but only the smallest of fractions took action. Even when April 20 rolled around as the first bellwether of the campaign, the majority of those who took an interest in the online film (or at least the popularity of it) lost interest or avoided it all together. In other words, most people heard the message and then shrugged their shoulders, some in disgust.

None of that means the campaign didn't have its noble moments or that Invisible Children didn't raise some additional dollars or enlist a few more activists that they didn't have before. But for nonprofits hoping to harness the Internet, emulating this so-called viral success story does more harm than good.

How Kony 2012 made people tune in and then tune out. 

While the case study isn't over per se (and Alexa isn't the most accurate measure), traffic spikes to  Invisible Children tell a different story than the one the organization insists happened. They flash a few singular poster shots, inferring that everyone woke up to cities blanketed in campaign material.

The real story shows that the campaign spiked in early March, spiked again when the filmmaker was arrested, and sustained only a fraction of interest on their first event day, April 20, before its awareness entered its final death throes. Invisible Children, in the interim, is attempting to salvage it all.

Having worked on several successful social cause campaigns with Amnesty International, March of Dimes, Acts Of Kindness, and, I immediately knew spikes are all wrong. In those four campaigns (and others), the event day traffic spikes are 100 times greater than the launch, which is indicative of an event that cumulates into a specific action. People participate, take action, and raise more awareness than the campaign launch.

For the Kony 2012 campaign, people were made aware but most didn't take action. Worse, the rationale to the campaign might be best summed up with a study by Relevation Research, which found people who dump a brand online are more likely to distance themselves from the brand after they dump it. Once that happens, it is much more difficult to get their attention again, no matter how important (even more important) the next set of messages might be.

It's not that dissimilar to telemarketing callers and overindulgent direct mail. Consumers are generally receptive to the first call if they have a natural interest in the product or service. But if the telemarketer calls back over and over again (whether the person expressed an interest or not) or the direct mail/email spam begins to pile up, the consumer slides from mildly interested to disinterested to despondent to annoyed to retaliatory.

When controversy is the campaign, it only creates more controversy. 

In studying Kony 2012 as a living case study, there were dozens of details that campaign organizers overlooked. But the most pressing for cause marketers to avoid is centering campaigns on controversy.

Sure, controversy is one proven method to capture media attention. But the problem with controversy is that is cannot be effectively channeled into positive action. Instead, it's like a car accident — people rubberneck to look, are immediately taken by what they see, and then they keep driving.

For Kony 2012, the controversy mostly revolved around the notion that you have to make villains or villainy "famous" before people will take action against it. It's not true, despite being a common premise. Statistically, when people are faced with a problem that is perceived to be insurmountable, they are less likely to take action. Instead, they exhibit signs of learned helplessness.

The people that Invisible Children ought to "make famous" are not Kony and his cronies, but rather everyone else — the individuals taking action to bring Kony to justice and the victims who have become strong enough to move past their often horrific injuries and speak out. Likewise, the organization could do better than talking about what "they" set out to do, what "they" did, and what "they" are asking you to do next.

They didn't do anything beyond making a film and some bracelets to peddle. Sure, that is something. But it's also nothing compared to what some of "you" did. And highlighting specific individual accomplishments around the world would have likely redirected the focus on the better goal — putting an end to the issue once and for all.

This might seem like a small thing, but it isn't. If you want people to do good, the point of empowerment is proven not by the organization but by the collective action of individual people who believe and then demonstrate that the power of one among many can make a difference. But that doesn't seem to be what the Kony 2012 campaign is really about, which is why it is fizzling out.

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