Wednesday, February 29

Speaking For SUVs: The Lorax?

Some people are saying the recent decision to cross-market the upcoming movie treatment of the Lorax and the Mazda's CX-5 could be the marketing mismatch of the decade. In a commercial featuring an animated CX-5 driving through a Truffula tree forest, the narrator suggests that the CX-5 has received "the only Truffula tree seal of approval."

Emblazoned on screen while the narrator touts the endorsement is the seal, proclaiming "Certified Truffula Tree Friendly. We Care An Awful Lot!" Only the Lorax seems a bit perturbed in the spot, poking grouchy fun at the repetitiveness of the spot and demanding equal billing at the end.

An anti-commericalism film that promotes cars? 

One of the many growing complaint columns about the commercial, this one by Devin Faraci, summed: "Sometimes I feel like satire is dead, and that's because everything in this world is so insane and screwed up that making fun of it feels redundant."





Faraci cares an awful lot. But he doesn't care more than Zozo. Zozo is a Hensen-created creature that was created to help educate children and their families about the environment. This includes how people think about combustion vehicles in general. Since the blowback began, Zozo has been voicing concern on Twitter and recently joined the "Rethinking the Automobile" project by Mark Gordon.

"This advertising campaign goes directly against the message and spirit of the Lorax," said Zozo in a release put out by OpenPlans. "The Lorax speaks for the trees, not the SUVees! I urge Universal, Mazda and their partners to immediately remove from circulation any and all advertising that uses Dr. Seuss's character the Lorax to promote and sell Mazda automobiles."

But how serious is Mazda about the promotion of the CX-5 as an environmentally friendly SUV? Enough that it would boost its advertising budget by 25 percent. According to Car Pro, that means advertising will be about $325 million to embed its new term, Skyactiv technology, into the language.

The chief marketing officer for Mazda North America went so far as to say that the pairing of the Lorax and the CX-5 is a natural fit (probably because it gets 28 miles per gallon). Along with the campaign, Mazda also launched a test-drive program that would benefit the NEA Foundation with a donation up to $1 million in support of public school libraries.

On the other side of the spectrum, some in the petroleum and logging industries have said that the film unfairly attacks them. And that is a curious thing that makes the Faraci quote stand out all the more.

When you think of an environmental-themed book being made into a multimillion dollar movie being marketed by a car company that promotes test drives for books causing two benefiting suppliers to be up in arms (petroleum for cars and trees for paper), there isn't any room left for satire.

The only thing that could make it more interesting is if the people who make Snuggies came out against the film. (They look like thneeds.) But then again, I might be biased. The Lorax sports a mustache.

Monday, February 27

Filtering Content: Efficiency Or Liability?

A team of researchers led by Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientists has identified how different neural regions communicate with each other in order to determine what we visually pay attention to and what to ignore. The study is a breakthrough in visual cognition.

Although the findings will be primarily used to guide research in visual and attention deficit disorders, the discovery has some far-reaching implications. Specifically, it could shed some light on how brains are trained to seek out affirmation-related content and how we might retrain brains to be more objective or, in the case of marketing, better understand how to weigh new information for consideration.

How can you ask someone to consider a red pencil when they are already looking for a yellow pencil?

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, used various brain imaging techniques to show exactly how the visual cortex and parietal cortex send direct information to each other through white matter connections in order to specifically pick out the information that we want to see.

For example, if the parietal cortex (which is where free will partially originates) tells the visual cortex to look for a yellow pencil, the visual cortex and parietal cortex send information to each other to help find relevant information. It will literally screen out other objects and/or colors to make finding the yellow pencil easier and more efficient.

However, there are many presumptions made before we ever start looking for a yellow pencil. We may assume that a pencil is the right instrument for the job. We may assume that the yellow pencil may have other attributes (such as being a no. 2 pencil). We may assume it is made by a specific manufacturer. We may assume that a yellow pencil is superior based on previous experiences with the yellow pencil. Everything we associate with the yellow pencil (consciously and subconsciously) might come into play to find what we're looking for.

But what if some or any of these assumptions are incorrect? What if a red pencil manufacturer has made a better instrument for the task at hand, but consumers have already trained their minds to screen out other writing instruments? How can the marketer bring attention to what people are not looking for?

How visual cognition shapes our world, and not always in the best way.

What if we think about this phenomenon on a grander contextual scale? It is possible that people are predisposed to look for things that either affirm their opinions or cause alarm because something seems dramatically out of place from how they want the world.

Depending on what we have trained our minds to look for — either information that makes us right or information that causes us to be alert — people generally find exactly what they are looking for without ever considering any other relevant data. It could explain why inferior but popular products frequently edge out lesser known superior products. It could be why certain news grabs our attention (mostly negative) while we dismiss more important news (mostly positive). It could be why some people immediately dismiss some political candidates based on age, ideology, and/or party affiliation.

"With so much information in the visual world, it's dramatic to think that you have an entire system behind knowing what to pay attention to," said Marlene Behrmann, professor of psychology at CMU and a renowned expert in using brain imaging to study the visual perception system. "The mechanisms show that you can actually drive the visual system — you are guiding your own sensory system in an intelligent and smart fashion that helps facilitate your actions in the world."

While Adam S. Greenberg, post-doctoral fellow in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences' Department of Psychology and lead author of the study, suggested that the research could help scientists find new ways to train white matter (the connections that help the visual cortex and parietal cortex communicate) to filter out irrelevant or unwanted information, one wonders if the other is possible — white matter can be trained to allow more information, thereby seeing a bigger picture and drawing well-reasoned conclusions that are not weighted by presumption.

Friday, February 24

Winning Or Spinning: The Fifth Estate

Author Geoff Livingston recently mentioned how average citizens are using social media to activate themselves online and demand change. He defines the phenomenon as the Fifth Estate, which is an extension of the media being considered the Fourth Estate.

Among his examples are the Syrian revolution and the Planned Parenthood/Susan B. Komen buzz up. Both are events that are being shaped and were shaped, in part, by online activists, citizen journalists, and social media. And then he ends by asking: What do you think about citizen journalists and the Fifth Estate?

I think public relations professionals ought to be afraid. 

Take any issue under social media and run with it. As Livingston pointed out, you will find a healthy dose of successes and failures. Popular opinion isn't always the right opinion and the masses make mistakes just as much as individuals. And sometimes, the mistakes they make are fraught with peril.

Take The Pink Back. There is no question that Susan B. Komen did everything wrong in terms of its initial executive decision and all public relations after the fact, but there is always that one largely unasked question looming in the background. Why was a private nonprofit organization with a $400 million operating budget compelled to donate to a government-subsidized nonprofit with a $1 billion operating budget? And why was there that much controversy over $680,000 as a result?

As much as the outcry seemed like a groundswell, much of it was coordinated through the lobby arm of the larger organization. And for Susan B. Komen, the penalty could forever pin it to one of the most controversial and emotionally charged issues in the country. Ironically, before Komen reversed its decision, both organizations received an uptick in donations that far exceeded the grant.

Chink In The Armor. Anthony Federico, an ESPN editor, was fired after his unfortunate use of the phrase "chink in the armor" that created an avalanche of social media fervor claiming ESPN has racist intent. The expression, which means a weakness or narrow opening in something otherwise strong, has been used in sports for as long as anyone can remember. But people took exception when the term was used as a mobile headline over a player who happened to be Taiwanese.

Unlike the other case study, the outrage was clearly caused by groundswell. And it seemed to make no difference to anyone that Jeremy Lin accepted the apology of Federico, who didn't vet his own choice of words. Federico has said he only had the primary definition in mind and it was an honest mistake. Rather than give him the benefit of the doubt, ESPN fired him, which may prove to be the wrong executive "crisis communication by the numbers" decision yet. Now the phrase is being deemed unusable in any context.

LEGO. LEGO recently launched a new set of toys called "LEGO: Friends" which features pastels and pinks as well as figures that look a little more "Barbie" than construction characters. The critics of the new toys are claiming that the LEGO: Friends set is sexist, and little girls don't need to have a special set to be interested in building.

LEGO has invested $40 million to launch its LEGO: Friends campaign. In addition to being upset by the colors, critics are upset because the new toy includes leisure, homemaking, baking, and caring for animals. LEGO has responded to the criticism by reminding parents they can purchase whatever set their children are interested in. However, the group that has been using Change.org to get its message out has also won a meeting with the organization fueling the outrage to discuss their concerns. If they pull the line, it could be one of the worst decisions the company will ever make.

The Fifth Estate is a mess and the Fourth isn't much better. 

It doesn't matter where you stand on any of these issues. The issues are not the point. The point is that social media empowers the improbable for right or wrong, even if the ability to tell what is groundswell and what is motivated by social agenda is becoming impossibly blurred.

All of this was an inevitable outcome as the Fourth Estate began to shift away from objective journalism and toward affirmation media, which embraces and elevates public opinion. While some see that shift is as a positive trend, the reality is that public opinion changes like the wind and sometimes too late to rectify any wrongs that come to light with the benefit of hindsight. Don't be a lemming to it.

In the interim, the only remedy public relations professionals can apply is a temporal communication model not only after an organization makes a decision, but also before it makes decisions. It's not foolproof, especially because you can always find two differing opinions fanning the flames of their mutual disconnect, but you might sleep a little easier as even the most absurd "invented" crisis gets attention.

Wednesday, February 22

Targeting Customers: Researchers Over Influencers

While some social media specialists pine away about online ranking systems, more experienced marketers don't care about online algorithms so much. Do you want to know why?

Everything they need to know about their customers is already online, offline, and proprietary. In fact, in places like Las Vegas, the ability to track customer movements offline has existed for better than a decade and even longer if you count some of the amazing things resorts did with coupon codes and player cards. (In some cases, Vegas invented data mining.) It's not just about one city. It's everywhere.

Real measurement doesn't track kitty vid clicks; it tracks how much cat food you buy and how many cats you own.

Anybody who read the recent Forbes article already knows half of it. Target's data analysis has become good enough that, based upon purchasing decisions alone, it has a remarkably high probability of predicting if someone in the household is pregnant (even if not everyone in the house knows it).

In some cases, I wouldn't be surprised if the data analysis is good enough to predict the probability of pregnancy before the future parent knows it. It wouldn't be hard to do. By culling a large pool of newly pregnant customers' shopping patterns and then analyzing their purchases just prior to becoming pregnant, any marketer can test for a statistical probability.

Match this probability against every customer based on site views, product purchases, etc. and there will be a pattern, assuming there is a pattern to be found. The same method could even apply to any number of life changes: employment, unemployment, engagement, political leanings, successes, failures, etc. When you study the psychology and sociology of purchases, patterns begin to emerge.

It's all relatively simple too. Any company with a guest ID program (whether online or offline via club cards), has a sophisticated data analysis program or the potential to make one. As soon as any customer makes a purchase, select information is dumped into a data bucket, usually purchases, names, credit cards, email addresses, phone numbers, and any other information people willfully give up.

Such data mining isn't foolproof, but it has gotten better. This is why online advertisements follow you around on the Web after you visit a site, why some marketers know when to send you a discount coupon, and how some sellers make reasonably good (but not great) predictions of whether you might like certain books, music, fashions, etc. And, even better, you don't have to be online to make it work.

Influencers are interesting, but researchers are powerful. 

Naturally, the success of any company's data analysis isn't determined by the program alone. It's determined by the researchers — people who can identify trends and turn those trends into action.

Taking a second look at the Target story, statistician Andrew Pole was one of those people. His team created a statistical benchmark based upon women in the company's baby registry. They were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion; buying more supplements like calcium, magnesium, and zinc; looking at extra big bags of cotton balls and wash cloths; etc. All in all, Pole and his team identified 25 products as indicators.

When this information was matched to women not on the baby registry, Target had a reasonably good idea which customers might be pregnant whether or not they signed up with the baby registry. This is powerful information for any company that wants to create direct-to-customer communication, right down to specific messages based on which trimester.

Contrast the power of data mining against influencers who are actively attempting to appear influential by covering popular trends, soliciting traffic, using clever headlines, buying advertisements, gaming attention, etc. and the shortcomings become a little more apparent. Do you want to reach a percentage of an influencer's followers or do you want to reach people that you know are pregnant?

That's not to say influencers can't be useful. They can be useful for short-term prospecting, message reinforcement, amplification, and conversion (adding them to a database where the heavy lifting occurs). However, since numbers alone aren't nearly enough, it might make more sense to find out who your customers already listen to as opposed to any online algorithm.

The down side of data mining is always short-term creepiness. 

Any time an article like the Forbes story breaks, it always feels a little bit creepy. But as creepy as data mining can be (and it is creepy), it's also a constant. Target might have been the company covered, but hundreds of companies have been tracking equally detailed data for some time.

They did it before social media and social networks too; virtually anyone with a credit or rewards card. And if you want a friendly reminder of just how much data is being captured, take an unexpected shopping spree and make some oddball purchases on your credit card.

If you trigger a fraud investigation, your credit card company will be able to tell you everything you did during the day, including travel routes. And if they wanted to, they could probably cull the data and tell you some pretty interesting things about you, your family, and where your next vacation might be.

Related Reading:

• Social Media Key Influencer In Multi-Exposure Purchase Path by eMaketer

FBI Seeks Social Media Data Mining Tool by CBC News

How A Smartphone App Can Detect How Fit (Or Fat) You Are by Forbes

Monday, February 20

Observing Washington: George Washington Day

Although many in the United States believe Presidents' Day is a meant to be a celebration of both President Washington and President Lincoln (and all presidents to some degree), the federal holiday is still only tied to celebrating the birthday of President George Washington. Any other designation is usually derived from state laws and not those of the nation.

In fact, the one time the federal government tried to pass such a law, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, it failed in committee. It wasn't until the mid 1980s that the idea of Presidents' Day took hold, spurred on not by government but by advertisers. Shortly after that commercial movement, some states began to rename Washington's Birthday observances as "President's Day," "Presidents' Day," "Washington and Lincoln Day," or other designations.

In some ways, the combining of the observance (if not in spirit, in law), might have been a mistake. George Washington had a unique vision for the country and one fitting for people to consider today. Nowhere did he make his thoughts better known than his farewell address, which you can read here. Here are some highlights.

Highlights from George Washington's Farewell Address. 

Unity. Washington reminded the American people that their independence, peace at home and abroad, safety, prosperity, and liberty are all dependent upon the unity between the states. Although he recognized different regions had different beliefs, values, and visions of commerce, he believed that the nation would only prosper through unity.

Change. Although Washington specifically said that it was the right of the people to alter its government that these alternations and changes ought to only be done through constitutional amendments. Even then, he warned that political factions would ultimately take the power from the people and place it in the hands of unjust men.

Parties. Even as the first president, Washington saw the rise of a political party system as a danger to the nation and the Constitution. He believed there was too much potential for one group or another to seek power over other groups and gradually incline the minds of men to seek security as opposed to the absolute power of the individual.

 • Values. Although many people like to suggest that the United States ought to preserve a hardline separation of church and state, Washington believed that religious principles promote the protection of property, reputation, and life that are the foundations of justice. He said the morality of a nation cannot be maintained without religion (despite being a Diest himself).

Budget. Washington said that a balanced federal budget, including the maintenance of the nation's credit, is an important source of strength and security. He said the nation should avoid war, avoid unnecessary borrowing, and pay off any national debt accumulated in times of war as quickly as possible so future generations would not have to take care of those financial burdens.

Alliances. Washington continually maintained that the nation ought to avoid permanent foreign alliances with other nations, especially because foreign nations will continually seek to influence the American people and government. He said real patriots will be those who ignore popular opinion and resist the influence of friendly nations to seek what is best for their own country.

Equally interesting, in looking at the entirety of the address, it seems remarkable that a man who began his life as someone considered among the "middle ranking" would one day gain the experience necessary to guide the formation of a country and eventually preside over a constitutional government that could evolve. And, the entire time, he remained humble enough to feel the position he was elected to was largely undeserved.

His humility, no doubt, was the result of his own heritage. Although his half-brother, who acted as Washington's father figure after their own father had died, did have some privileges and opportunities granted to him after developing a close relationship with the Fairfax family, Washington was not necessarily born into any elite status like some of the country's founding fathers. He earned most of it.

And perhaps it was because he earned it that Washington still imparts some of the best wisdom for this country, even if his farewell address is no longer read by the House of Representatives and had taken on a more ceremonial reading in the Senate than one for our senators and representatives to reflect on.

If they did, some might imagine a very different agenda. If they did, they might see a government that works to unite rather than divide, preserve a legacy rather than write their own, protect individuals rather than subjugate them, observe morals rather than vilify them, balance a budget rather than argue about how much more to borrow, and place more importance on the country rather than its position in the world.

Happy birthday, George Washington (Feb. 11 on the old calendar and Feb. 22 on the new one). You might not have thought yourself worthy of the position, but your considerable wisdom proves otherwise. On every point, you were right.

Friday, February 17

Sharing Nonsense: Warner Music Group

Unlike many, I don't have anything against Warner Music Group (WMG). They have produced scores of solid albums from talented artists on their label and several dozen independent labels for more than 200 years if you trace it back to Chappell & Co. It's the third largest music publishing business in the world.

However, it is kind of remarkable that it has been able to accomplish as much as it has, given that the company is also its own worst enemy. Last fiscal year, it reported a net loss of $205 million.

The company likes to say the loss is associated with its hard work to make the transition to the digital music industry. But the truth is that the company isn't trying to transition to digital. WMG is trying to make the digital music industry transition to it.

Some might even say it is the cornerstone of its current business vision. It has long been regarded as having views that make other SOPA and PIPA supporters look reasonable. In fact, it is the most aggressive label in removing content on YouTube. And now, it seems to be arbitrarily enacting a model that cost EMI a contract with OK Go last year.

Warner Music Group in action. Disabling video embeds. 

As some people know, we run a little side project called Liquid [Hip]. It's a site that reviews all sorts of things, with music accounting for about 50 percent of the content. Yesterday, we reviewed an alternative rock/metal band called Janus. They're signed by Realid (pronounced Reality with a D), which happens to be owned by WMG.

Whenever we can, we try to include video embeds of bands to give readers an idea of what we hear. For Janus, we chose the new lyrical video Stains, which is the advance single off their new album due out in March. We think if the album is indicative of the single, it will catapult the band to the next level.

Since embedding was enabled, we thought it best represented the sound while showcasing the single. After the first hour, however, embedding wasn't disabled but the playback was replaced with a message: This video contains content from WMG, who has blocked it from display on this website. Watch it on YouTube. The message is inaccurate. It really means any website.



That's fine with me. We picked up a replacement video. Unfortunately, it doesn't represent as strong, doesn't link back to the artist's channel, and caused some people to send emails asking us about it.

It makes sense that they would. For the first hour or so, the review was read by several hundred people and shared by a few dozen. All that went cold after the lockdown. And it never came back for the band.

To their credit, Janus tried to find a solution because they wanted the lyrical video up too. They even said so on our Facebook page.

They even included a link to the lyrical video; the same video. The image capture shows how that turned out. Janus couldn't share its own video, not even on Facebook.

Given the block was so extreme, we decided to cull through all of our old posts. Sure enough, every WMG video and every WMG indie label carried the same message. So we replaced all of them, even the one that we helped give life to: it had ten views when we shared it. It has 9,700 views today.

Personally, I don't care about the drop off of interest, other than how it affects the band. I don't care because when we first launched the review site for fun, we promised ourselves to never compromise on cool. Listen, don't listen. Read, don't read. Buy, don't buy. I couldn't give a shit about going viral.

We emphasize this fact with our tagline: we cover cool, not popular. Never once did we expect the site would hit 50,000 views in the course of a month. But that's still not how we measure success.

We measure success by giving exposure to what we think is cool (which is a higher bar than what we like). And when people who read the reviews thank us for introducing a new band or a label writes us a note to thank us for what we are doing or another review site follows our lead and asks us for links to a purchase site or a band likes a review not because it is easy but because it is hard, well, it feels worth it.

WMG, on the other hand, ought to give a shit about going viral. The more people exposed to the music, the more people are likely to buy the album. The more people exposed to the music, the more likely they are to become fans. And the more people exposed to the music, the more likely they will buy Stains, Nox Aeris, past albums, merchandise, and future albums even if we never review them again.

It's painfully clear the embed block is not about piracy. It's about shrinking the sales funnel for short-term control and, in some cases, attempting to elevate views on YouTube even if most people in the business know that the majority of video views are fueled by embed views.

A different digital strategy and policy could help people help WMG. 

All of this really isn't a big deal. I removed/replaced about ten WMG locked down videos (except the one above for purposes of illustration), even if it hurts WMG and related label artists because I refuse to carry their WMG content message on our site. I don't intend to put the videos back either.

What I would like to avoid is feeling forced to omit WMG and related indie label artists outright. So instead of boycotting WMG as some have done, I wrote a few ideas for the new owner, Len Balvatnik, to pass along to the fine folks at WMG who didn't respond to my inquiry about the video block.

• Always assume the first single is an investment in the album and let people share it.
• Be courteous to reviewers by disabling 'embedding' outright and not after the fact.
• Recognize that people who view embeds follow them to the band channel (you win).
• Add advertisements that run inside the embeds to increase potential revenue.
• Include an end title card with a direct link to the purchase site of your choice.
• Weigh the merit of publishing clips (in some cases) as opposed to full-length videos.

The question ought not to be about how to prevent people from sharing WMG content outside of its social media assets, but how WMG can maximize revenue because people want to share its content.

I appreciate the concern about piracy (although embedding a video in a review is a revenue generator and not a detractor). Piracy is something everyone ought to be concerned about. But companies such as yours need to remember that most people are happy to purchase music as opposed to pirating it.

Right now, most regulations WMG wants to implement as well as the overzealous WMG lockdown and blocking practices alienate people who are paying loyalists and does nothing to curb the appetite of real criminals. In fact, almost every practice currently employed by WMG alienates people, empowers pirates, and diminishes the fading respect people once had for the brand. Please try to do the right thing.

Wednesday, February 15

Engineering Entrepreneurs: Start With Education

A few days ago, Anthony Delmedicofounder of The Little Green Money Machine and author of Kids In Business Around The World, gave a speech that he calls an "E2" during a Future of Entrepreneurship Education (FEE) Summit, which was held at the White House. His topic centered on an interesting idea: add entrepreneurship education as a core curriculum in our K-12 schools.

"While the nation's unemployment rate wavers close to 10 percent, for young adults, 16 to 30, the unemployment is closer to 26 percent. And in some cities, close to 40 percent," said Delmedico. "For those fortunate enough to earn a high school or college degree, very few are prepared for today's job market. Currently there are 2.4 million college graduates who cannot find jobs in their fields of study ... that's 80 percent."

Delmedico went on to say that America will need to create a net 21 million new jobs by 2020 in order to return to full employment. These jobs are unlikely to come from large companies. He rightly pointed out 75 percent of all jobs come from entrepreneurs with small companies. So, in order to create 21 million new jobs, Americans have be serious about creating new entrepreneurs, businesspeople whom he believes are sitting in classrooms today.

Delmedico is largely right. Early entrepreneurship is needed. 

While Delmedico's own marketing efforts sometimes seem tired and his book might be classified as motivational as much as it is business-minded, his heart and head are in the right place. Most curriculum is geared toward rudimentary skills to pass tests, perhaps prepare for college, and then on to learn theories that are supposed to help college graduates enter the job market and compete for jobs that don't exist.

The net result: a majority of young adults are unprepared to do anything except work for someone else. And, of those who are unprepared, most of them have never considered that they might be able to start their own businesses. It is very likely fewer young adults have entrepreneurial spirit because they have less experience given the government's ongoing war against lemonade stands, cupcake vendors, and other kid businesses.  

There is indeed an irony in that kids are allowed to peddle candy bars and merchandise for public schools or sports teams, but not themselves. And, right now, the Department of Labor continues to expand labor laws to prevent children from doing any work until the age of 16. Even then, there is a mountain of information to consider. 

Public education could be the right place to develop and rekindle the entrepreneurial spirit instead of ratcheting up legislation that nurtures dependency (e.g., young adults under the age of 21 must have proof of income or an adult co-signer; health insurance is poised to be extended until young adults turn 26). It might even be a catalyst to make a startup venture easier across the board. A turnkey program at public schools, perhaps as an elective to start, could even open the doors to make starting a business easier for young adults. Consider the possibilities. 

How introducing entrepreneurship reinvigorates students. 

By introducing an elective program into public education with various tracks, schools could provide a one-stop exemption for students to automatically receive all licenses, permits, etc. needed to start their own businesses.

Tracks could include a variety of alternatives such as invention (science and technology), service provision (for sales, like lemonade), arts and crafts (with an online component), engineering and architecture (manufacturing), etc. along with core components for bookkeeping, basic marketing, etc. In some cases, students with businesses that intersect could work together or create larger ventures that might be managed by several kids with a vested interest. And for the first time, many of these students will begin to understand why some basic information is important and applicable in their world.

More importantly, such a program could nurture what everyone wants these kids to exhibit despite not always being given the opportunity to learn: critical thinking and leadership skills. They can do it. Any student can. 

There are many studies that support the case that anyone can become a leader. In fact, most studies have concluded that no common traits (intelligence, birth order, socioeconomic status) nor characteristics (capacity, responsibility, participation) can distinguish non-leaders from leaders. What can be critical, however, is giving students leadership opportunities as early as possible so they develop confidence in becoming leaders later, people who can develop a vision, share that vision, value human resources, and become self-motivated.

Even if students who engage in an entrepreneurial program decide they do not want to start or manage a business as a result, such early experiences could still be beneficial to their future employers. At the same time, they might also gain an appreciation for small business employers.

Right. Starting a business can be challenging and rewarding, but it's also no easy task. It might even erase some of the growing disconnect between employers and employees if more people understood how taxes and regulations aimed at large employers tend to hinder small businesses the most.

Monday, February 13

Recognizing Data: Passive Analysis Pays Off

There are dozens of ways for marketers to gain insight and better understand the general public. And most marketers actively engage in such research, which means they conduct one (or more) of four traditional marketing research techniques (observational, focus group, survey research, experimental), many of which can be and are being applied online.

Where marketers miss, however, is in not conducting periodic off-topic research or considering what other studies, surveys, and experiments might reveal (passive analysis). Sometimes the biggest insights are not found in an organization's own research (products, services, etc.) but in the research being conducted by others.

Why The Better Homes and Gardens survey is important. 

As part of our ongoing study of shifting attitudes toward a new economy, we've been following dozens of studies to create a generalized composite of consumer sentiment. And one of the latest surveys by Better Homes and Gardens bears out the concept that the public is undergoing a shift, from spontaneous consumption to long-term value. Here are some of the most interesting findings from the survey.

• Consumers are taking more time to plan for home improvements (from 33% to 39%). 
• Consumers are shopping around for more deals and bargains (from 40% to 42%). 
• Consumers want value for every dollar they invest in their homes (from 56% to 61%). 
• Consumers will get rid of excess stuff before paying for more storage (31%, no change). 
• Consumers are less interested in "bonus rooms" as opposed to "multipurpose rooms" (not specified).
• Consumers are interested in some feature upgrades (facets, fixtures, etc.) (from 51% to 55%). 
• Consumers are not more interested in remodeling projects, with all types of projects remaining flat.

There was one survey point that we dismissed. According to the survey, owning a home is still an important part of the American dream (80%). But we dismissed this finding because the survey was conducted on the Better Homes and Gardens site. Obviously, people who do not value home ownership are less likely to visit Better Homes and Gardens.

The real insight in this survey (when compared to other research) follows trends toward a new economy. People are becoming more value driven (not necessarily direct response or sales driven), less consumption driven, consider flexibility more important than status, and place a greater emphasis on long-term purchases that will help them avoid more repairs, replacements, and remodels in the future. 

What does this mean for non-housing related marketers? 

Throughout the 1990s, most consumers banked on a rapidly changing future that would allow them to upgrade everything in their lives at a quick pace. People changed jobs for more opportunity, flipped homes as they advanced, refinanced for status remodels, traded in leased vehicles at a quicker pace, etc. 

In a slow economy, people are more concerned that whatever purchases they make will fit within their budgets and last considerably longer. They know their lifestyles may change, which means flexibility becomes increasingly important. They want increased reliability and security over change because they recognize that not all change is for the better. They place more value on intangible qualities of life (more time to do something meaningful) as opposed to tangible qualities of life (consumption). 

If an organization recognizes how such trends affect their niche, they can make modifications not only to their communication (highlighting long term over short term), but also apply it to research and development, with an emphasis on creating products and services that promise long-term value over short-term trades. How about your organization? Is it still catering to the shrinking pool of consumers who value consumption? Or is it trading in a short-term sales message for something better?  

Friday, February 10

Balancing Acts: #Fail vs. #Win

Michael Schechter, author of A Better Mess blog and filling in for Geoff Livingston, guest penned a post that touches at the heart of a new social media meme. The Audaciousness of Corporate Social Media Failure is a thought piece on the fascination with pointing out more failures than successes.

He is not alone in his recent assessment. Jennifer Kane called her post The Rise of Social Schadenfreude. Jason Falls recently asked What Happened To Saying Something Nice? And several weeks ago, although not in a blog post, Shel Holtz asked pretty much the same question related to public relations.

Richie Escovedo captured the sentiment in his post New Year's Hat Tip For Triumphs. Along with Holtz's thoughts, you can see my quip about it: "Many public relations triumphs go unseen, which is why they are triumphs." To which Holtz asked if the abundance of blunder-focused posts skews the perception of public relations. Escovedo believes it does. I'm not sure.

Understanding the lopsided exchange of #Fail and #Win. 

Some of it goes back to old school marketing and customer service. Even before social media, consumers were more likely to share a negative experience at a rate of 8 to 1. With social media, that ratio can expand to 8 million to 1, depending on the complaint and who shares it.

Some of it goes back to old school journalism. Negative news tends to have more news worthiness than good news, much in the same way the old adage once conveyed: dog bites man is not news. A man biting a dog is news. But it goes even deeper than that.

Anytime Bruce Spotleson, group publisher for Greenspun Media Group, speaks to my public relations class, he tells the students a story about one of the newspapers he worked for years ago. They agreed with everyone else. There is too much bad news. So, every Tuesday, they decided to make it a "good news" paper. It only took a couple months to find out what happens. People stopped buying Tuesday.

In fact, the phenomenon is not limited to communication. Watch most parents with their children after school. When "As" and "Bs" become commonplace, it will take an "F" for parents to take an interest. You can tell how influenced your children are already by the daily news they share with you. If they always lead with bad news, there's a good chance you're subconsciously ignoring their praises.

Some of it is hardwired. In one perception experiment featured in the free app Color Uncovered, you're asked to stare at a circle gray circle with magenta dots. Eventually, the magenta dots disappear. Except, they don't really disappear. We just stop paying attention when stimulus is unchanging or expected.

How to stop hating and live with the #Fail. 

Try to remember that people are not predisposed to negative. They are predisposed to ignore the expected. And unfortunately, that gives negative a leg up on everything. If the school bus makes it to school, no one cares. If it gets in an accident, it might make national news.

It's also why we never mention an 'expected' meal at a restaurant (it has to be exceptional or slightly below expected to be mentioned), why people mostly stopped tweeting about having waffles for breakfast (and were even made fun of), why negative political advertising works (even though people claim to detest it), why the media still tend to follow the mantra "if it bleeds, it leads," and why some review sites are staked with an overabundance of "1s" and "5s."

I experience it all the time too. I praised Corning Incorporated for a well-executed video and nobody really cared (not even people who claim there is too much negativity in the space). But coverage of any given crisis will always attract eyeballs. More people remember those case studies too.

In fact, after hearing from Writing For Public Relations students (last year) that I might include more negative than positive case studies, I counted them. The positive case studies outweighed negative case studies 10 to 1. They just chose to remember the negatives.

There is nothing much you can do to change human nature, but there are a few things you can do.

• Find different ways to make things unexpected by avoiding patterns that are too perfect.
• Critique negative behaviors and actions rather than the individuals or organizations.
• Stop writing for traffic and stay focused on what might benefit people to know.
• Never take social media, or even people in general, too seriously. We're all less than perfect.

Personally, I think it all comes down to intent. If the attempt is to willfully look to the next victim, the #fail #fails. But if the intent is to share an abundance of relevant stories, good or bad, and turn them into teaching lessons so people avoid making the same mistakes, then it can be great. Just use your head.

And now I have to go and ask my daughter what happened today. She always leads with good news for me because I'm interested. How about you? Are you actively looking for good case studies? And can you tell the difference between positive criticism and negative criticism?

Wednesday, February 8

Inferring Context: The Clint Eastwood Commercial

In one of the most peculiar advertising case studies in recent history, the Clint Eastwood Super Bowl halftime commercial has been highjacked by politics. The irony? The advertisement was apolitical.

The only possible way anyone in politics could imagine that the commercial was political, especially with a subliminal message, is if they loaded it with inferences that just aren't there. It seems some people, on both sides of the aisle, have done exactly that.

Some on the left say the advertisement is about them. Some on the right say the advertisement is about the left. And I say they are both full of themselves. The commercial is about America, carrying forward the message and imagery from last year's Eminem commercial on a much grander scale.

While the spot itself won't do anything to bolster car sales, it does attempt to align Chrysler with the illusion of American toughness. Never mind that the company is controlled by Italian carmaker Fiat.



Among the most outspoken has been Karl Rove, who said he was offended by the advertisement. While Rove can be considered a brilliant political strategist (even if I don't agree with his tactics), he seems to have drank his own Kool-Aid. And unfortunately, Michelle Malkin too. They see Eastwood fronting a bailout ad, with Rove racheting up the rhetoric with the claim it somehow conveys Chicago-style politics. To be fair, CNN reporter Wolf Blizter thought it was an Obama Super Pac ad too.

The impossible nature of inference and the missed opportunities that come with it. 

To really understand why they miss the mark and allowed inference to steal what could have been their own opportunity, you really need to read the copy contained in the spot (full transcription below). After, I'll demonstrate how it works both ways (making it neutral), much like Clint Eastwood saw it before he signed on to read it.

It's halftime. Both teams are in their locker rooms discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half. It's halftime in America, too, People are out of work, and they're hurting. And they're all wondering what they're gonna do to make a comeback. And we're all scared because this isn't a game. The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again.

I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life. Times when we didn’t understand each other. It seems that we’ve lost our heart at times. The fog, division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead.

But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one. Because that's what we do. We find a way through times and if we can't find one then we'll make one. All that matters now is what's ahead. How do we come from behind. How do we come together. And how do we win. Detroit is showing us it can be done. And what is true about them is true about all of us.

This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do, the world’s going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime America. And out second half is about to begin.


The charges that it is a thinly disguised pro-Obama ad could be argued once someone has planted the seed. But is it really? Only certain lines can carry the case forward, especially the one suggesting that we pulled together to save Chrysler with an auto bailout, but the reality of the inference doesn't hold.

The auto bailouts were a bad idea. I know the point is debatable to many people, but the reality is that when government protects big companies, it inadvertently hurts smaller companies that want to rise up and take their place. Regardless, there comes a point when you have to move beyond the argument and forge ahead. We cannot reverse the auto bailouts. We made it clear no one ought to do it again.

So where does that leave us? If someone added the direct line that Obama was at the halftime of his career, and things are going to get better, then the case could be made. Likewise, people like Rove and Malkin could have made the claim that the American people are about to take back their government from the Obama administration in the second half, which is why things are going to better.

In fact, about the only wiggle room anyone has is that the Chrysler marketing team behind the ad picked an image of protestors in Wisconsin as a visual. They knew it might be politically charged, which is why they masked the signs. Still, they could have picked a protest image that was less political (although please note that I have to really stretch the intent to make a case. I really don't see it).

The sad truth is that neither side seems to get it, even after Eastwood issued a statement. 

"I am certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama. It was meant to be a message about job growth and the spirit of America," Eastwood said. "I think all politicians will agree with it. I thought the spirit was OK ... If Obama or any other politician wants to run with the spirit of the ad, go for it."

And there you have it. If anyone wants to pick a side on the unexpected Clint Eastwood commercial debate, I suggest we forego right and left and pick Eastwood's side. His side is America's side.

Of course, the rub up shows why inferences are very dangerous things. They tend to show weaknesses in the people who make them. The conspiracy around every corner from the right. The audacity that anything good must be about them on the left. The zeal of feeding the angst machine by the media.

Along with Eastwood, Bill O'Reilly got it right too. He didn't see it as a propaganda spot either, which is no doubt why Eastwood sent his statement to O'Reilly rather than the media at large.

Monday, February 6

Working With Vision: How The Future Shapes Today

There is an old adage I learned two decades ago. There are no boring stories, only boring writers.

Sometimes executives and communication professionals tell me it isn't true. There are plenty of boring companies and not everyone needs a vision. Statistics seem to bear their argument out. As many as one-third of Fortune 500 companies do not have a vision statement. And, for those that do, only 22 percent have transformational vision statements, which strive to change the world (or the segment in which they operate).

However, most of those who cite that figure neglect the historical truth. One-third of Fortune 500 companies in 1970 ceased to exist by 1983 and more than two-thirds were gone by 1995. No company is too big to fail. And those that do fail never have a substantive or transformative vision.

Corning Incorporated Sees Its Vision. 

Corning Incorporated is a glass and ceramics company. When people hear the name, most remember it for its CorningWare and Corelle tableware brands even though the company divested those assets in 1998. (The original company, Bay State Glass Co. in 1851, wasn't focused on tableware either.)

Its vision statement has deep meaning for those who know what it means, but tends to feel flat otherwise. A portion of it reads like this: We remain steadfast in our commitment to leverage the key strands of our Diversity DNA: operate with a Global Mindset, support a Culture of Collaboration, foster a Passion for Learning, encourage Employee Development and Value The Individual.

But neither that line, nor the broader statement, really conveys what Corning is. If you really want to understand who Corning is, watch this video clip. It runs almost six minutes; every second counts.



Everything about A Day Made of Glass 2 presents a crystal clear transformative vision that changes the way you think about the company and what the future might look like. It's hardly boring; it's inspired.

In fact, it inspires in every segment of its audience: consumers, developers, partners, employees, and investors. It not only changes the way people see the world, but it also changes the way we see Corning in it.

Change The Way People See The World.

When I first watched the video on the day it was posted, only a few hundred people had found it. Two days later, it captured 180,000 views. In the days that follow,  some communicators will call it a viral success.

I do not. Going viral isn't the real story. The real story is how a company not only found its transformative vision, but also the perfect way to communicate it. The outcome is as big as the vision.

It is difficult to watch this video without thinking about Corning Incorporated differently. It's difficult to watch this video without thinking about the world differently. This future is today, if we want it to be.

Friday, February 3

Talking Complexity: So What About The One Percent?

There are dozens of economic models, formulas, and ideas that people share and cite. I tend to read many of them because I have interests outside communication. At the same time, I'm also always thinking about how these non-communication subjects intersect with communication because the ability to communicate them is equally important, if not more important, than the ideas themselves.

Yesterday, Andrew Smith reminded me about one by Dani Rodrik. The non-communication idea is sharp enough, but what's especially refreshing is the way in which two students at the Unversidade Nova de Lisboa in Portugal wrote it. They used the Simpsons to convert the idea into a fun presentation. You can find a link to the presentation in Rodrik's introduction to Disruptive Politics and Economic Growth.

What the presentation reminded me is what a terrible job Republicans do in explaining their economic position to a majority of Americans. And, until they get it together, the message will never resonate.

Communicating about complex topics can derail companies and break nations. 

There is a very good reason why the current administration's message tends to perform better than their opponent's message. Income inequality has created a lower median income, and the people who fall below that median have an increased propensity to vote for higher taxes to make up their shortfalls.

The downside, however, is that the opposition is right in actuality, if not popularity. Increasing taxes on capital endowments (which the administration wants to do) has an adverse affect on growth, which increases unemployment, which in turn moves the median income even lower. Eventually, the pattern repeats with even more people who favor higher taxes. And eventually, the economy collapses.

This economic principle is one of the primary reasons Republicans want to hold the line on all taxes. But they have trouble communicating it. They struggle with it because it is generally reframed into the sound bite that "they represent and want to protect the rich."

Of course, that isn't true either. Wealthy people call the shots in both parties, and one side is not more altruistic than the other. If they were, we wouldn't need more taxes because they would donate what's needed as opposed to raising taxes.

Sure, the current administration likes to talk about how they have extended certain "tax breaks" and nothing has happened. While this is true, they omit the psychological impact of increased regulations and the constant threat of new taxes on people with capital. In other words, it would be like your power company telling you that next month your energy bill will be ten times as much for the indefinite future. You would probably hold on to any cash you had. They are holding.

Frankly, the dynamic of all this is remarkably acidic. And I'm not sure there is a good message.

What a capitalistic model might look like if all parties rethought politics. 

A better approach might to be realign the overarching goal into objectives that are obtainable and much more easily communicated. For illustrative purposes only, consider four fundamentals as examples.

• Government. There is no question the government should never directly invest in private companies. It is especially bad at it. If it is going to invest, it ought to invest in government-owned infrastructure, with most funding in research and development (and then contracting out labor).

This is one of the reasons I am a proponent of the moon colony concept. It would be the modern equivalent of Hoover Dam. (That, and I know too much about small grant awards and waste.)

• Business. As much as many people appreciate Ayn Rand, many more misunderstand her. They must, because the takeaway that some people seem to have is that she places a high value on the individual, which is somehow selfish. When I read Rand, I take away something different.

Businesses, regardless of size, ought to invest in communities, states, and countries, not because government forces them to do it but because it is in their best interest. If businesses want an educated workforce, better infrastructure, and safeguards against taxation, then a capital investment in the communities that help them succeed is commonsense. Businesses used to do it all the time before the government took over charity. As a backgrounder, see the comment in this post, written 10 years ago.

• People. A higher standard of living might be desirable, but a society built on overconsumption is equality problematic. If the early movement toward a more meaningful economy is valid, then we might nurture it along by measuring the merit of our lives not by the cars we drive but by the values we leave behind. Legacies are not built on mountains of discarded stuff.

As long as social media remains relatively free of social scoring and continues to lift people up as opposed to protecting the higher ground, its early success can be carried forward. It has proven invaluable in finding new talent and discovering otherwise hidden thoughts from great people who make the world a better place with both inspirational and tangible results.

• Nonprofits. As long as nonprofit organizations set sustainable action in motion rather than aiming to increase their own case loads to pad budgetary need, they are vital. In many cases, they can replace the need for some government funded services, assuming they stay away from the infusion of politics that usually comes with government grants.

In fact, had someone considered it 20 years ago, a nonprofit health insurance alternative might have helped this country avoid any pressure to create an intrusive national model. And that touches on one of the key areas we need to improve because overlapping nonprofits can dilute impact while leaving other needs underserved (like health care). General guidelines might not be bad either; some nonprofits love to pad executive salaries, upgrade training packages, and receive transportation perks.

While not everyone would necessarily agree with these illustrative ideas, all four represent nonpartisan objectives that can be understood. Smart government sets the stage for success and protects it. Purpose-driven businesses make profits and then invest them. Conscientious people value education and find meaning in their lives regardless of their titles. Nonprofits help organize groups to meet unmet critical needs.

If we had all that, then most people wouldn't care about the one percent or 99 percent. I think that would be a good thing too. Because at the end of the day, we still need 100 percent to work.

Wednesday, February 1

Finding The Truth: Social Media, Psychology, And You

Two psychological studies were published on Jan. 30, with the lead news outlets being the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Depending on which story someone reads it could have dramatically altered their opinion and their reality about teenagers and the Internet. See for yourself.

Study: Face Time Benefits Preteens, Wall Street Journal 

Lead. A new study finds that media multitasking can hurt social and emotional development in preteen girls. And the researchers found a simple remedy—face-to-face tasks.

Summation. Heavy digital multitasking and more time spent in front of screens correlated with poor emotional and social health — including low social confidence, having more friends who parents perceive as poor influences, and even sleeping less. Ergo, the Internet is evil.

Researchers. Clifford Nass, communications professor; and Roy Pea, an education professor. Both at Stanford University. The paper was published in Developmental Psychology.

Shareability. Extremely shareable. More than a dozen pickups by major and mid-tier media outlets, almost all of which ran with much more negative headlines than the Wall Street Journal. My personal favorite is that "Too much social networking makes girls less happy: Study." The story was shared moderately on social networks, heavily when considering total shares from multiple articles.

The Comments. About 124 comments, mostly agreeing with the negative conclusions (and a few argumentative). Most of them were based on parental observations.

Do You Have A Blog?, The New York Times

Lead. Research has shown that keeping a diary helps soothe teenage angst. Researchers are saying that keeping a blog is even better therapy for the overwhelmed teenager. 

Summation. After the teenagers in the study were broken into six groups, two groups were asked to write about social problems, two groups were asked to write about anything, two groups kept private diaries or did nothing. The greatest improvement in mood was exhibited by the first group, which wrote about social problems and allowed comments. Ergo, the Internet is good. 

Researchers. Meyran Boniel-Nissim, psychology professor; and Azy Barak, psychology professor. Both at the University of Haifa, Isreal. The paper was published by Psychological Services.

Shareability. Not very shareable, not even the original article. There were only three other publications to run the story. All of them positive. The most positive headline "Science proves blogging is therapeutic — at least for teenagers. The story was hardly shared, either version.  

The Comments. About 40 comments, mostly disagreeing with the story and "reportedly" suggested that the comments were written by youth. The net consensus, overall, was that the idea of publishing their social problems for strangers was creepy and, in general, that they (teens) were much too busy living their lives to worry about the Internet. 

The Net Summation Of Two News Stories And A Different Reality.

When you weigh all of the observations, you might come up with an all together different observation. (It's admittedly tongue in cheek, but amazingly accurate at the same time.) Enjoy.

Two non-psychologists conduct an anecdotal study that they admit is non-conclusive (but they provide a solution anyway) that is wildly believed by parents who spend all their time online worrying about their kids online. It spreads like wildfire. 

Meanwhile, two psychologists actually conduct a study with control groups and prove the opposite might be true, but the kids in question say they are too busy living their lives to engage in a practice they consider creepy. And nobody cares. 

There are plenty of takeaways and you are welcome to take your pick. News isn't as important as it is sensational. Popularity doesn't make something true. Stanford professors should stick to their fields. The parents are a bigger problem than the kids. If you think this is bad, you should see how the political coverage has been lately. And so on and so forth. 

Please feel free to invent your own takeaways in the comments. I would love to read them because sometimes you need to treat the death of objective journalism with a good laugh. Wakes are more fun than funerals, after all.
 

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