Monday, April 30

Redefining Public Relations: Convergence Or Confusion

There are several things you can take away from the Current State Of The PR Industry (Annenberg Study 2012), a guest post on PR Squared, written by Burghardt Tenderich, associate director for the Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center at the USC Annenburg School for Communication and Journalism. But if you had to pick one: the field is in a state of change.

• There are significantly fewer agency-of-record relationships in the industry.
• The number of agencies that an organization hires has increased over time.
• The areas of specialization, including proximity, have become more significant.
• Social media is mainstream, whether public relations manages it or not.
• Public relations is being divided into tactical and strategic communication.

It's the last bullet that ought to raise eyebrows among public relations firms. It pinpoints why some firms, which sought specialization as a means to become more competitive, may have moved themselves further away from a strategic level of participation. As they become more known for specialties — planning special events, managing social networks, working with the media, crisis mitigation — they become less likely to work with executive management on a meaningful level.

Fewer firms manage the message. More firms are managed by it. 

One of the reasons, it seems to me, that more firms are being hired by organizations and fewer firms are being asked to manage the entire public relations component of a campaign is by accidental design. In developing their own comparison and contrast points, clients began to think of them as specialists.

This, along with the size of most firms, led to clients becoming more inclined to assign each firm smaller and smaller  "project work" such as Facebook, a special event, a product launch, a specific short-term campaign, etc. This benefits the organizations three-fold: it negates high monthly retainers, expands the potential reach of the organization (with each contracted firm handling its pool of contacts), and frees the client from having to perform too much task work.

A few years ago, I was brought in to to oversee one project managed much the same way. One firm handled New York, one firm handled Los Angeles, one firm handled secondary national markets, one firm handled radio stations, one firm worked with talent and street teams, and one firm handled social media. Along with these firms, there were four organizations designated as strategic partners.

There were two takeaways for me then. First, while the firms were invited to make suggestions, none of them were given the responsibility for a strategic plan. Second, each component was easier to replace if need be. It seems somewhat dangerous. All of them had made themselves reasonably replaceable.

Another outcome that I did not see at the time is hinted at in the full study released by USC Annenberg. The study notes that organizational communication/public relations budgets have increased but the fee allocation to an increasing number of public relations firms is shrinking. While the study points out that the increasing budgets exaggerate the chart, the takeaway is the same. The shift is toward tactical.

The number one reason agencies are hired is to increase arms and legs. 

While some firms are finding themselves more inclined to provide strategic or regional insight (the number two and number three reason to hire a firm), the majority of organizations hiring firms are looking to offset task work. This doesn't mean public relations is becoming less strategic as a whole, but it does demonstrate that there is a division occurring within the field.

Some public relations firms, much like internal departments, are gaining more relevance within the organization. In fact, according the Annenberg study, 60 percent of departments say they are involved in the senior-level decision making process and 70 percent say their recommendations are taken seriously. In other words, departments (along with a few firms) are increasing their relevance as strategic partners, but the majority of the industry is not.

While there is nothing wrong with this, it does illustrate a trend. Over the long term, it may diminish the importance of public relations firms despite the recent definition change proposed by the Public Relations Society of America in an effort to bolster the strategic importance of the industry. Or, at minimum, concentrate the most important strategic aspects of public relations to a smaller pool of strategic communication firms and in-house departments.

Friday, April 27

Branding Failure: Your Brand Is Not You

Professionals aren't the only ones struggling with the lack of social networking etiquette and the impact of errant tweets on so-called "personal brands." It seems that online friends, extended family members, and spouses can be the source of most online friction.

Even if someone carefully manicures their online presence and pedigree, it only takes a single tweet, comment, or picture from someone closest to you to undo everything in a day. One button click on Facebook can undo a decade of being an ideal "power couple" when someone changes their status from 'married' to 'its complicated'.

These seemingly harmless, sometimes quirky online episodes under the existing rules of social networks can set off a flurry of phone calls among family members, make connected employers think twice about whose head is clear enough to lead that big project, or even scare away the usual friendly suspects who normally subscribe to everything you share. It doesn't even have to be so overt, either.

Anything can happen, really. A couple of years ago, I was working with a candidate who took a pretty tough stand on illegal immigration. One of his followers, who the candidate hadn't spoken to in years, took exception to what he had to say, enough so that she started rallying against him on Facebook thread.

The entire episode exploded into a half-day session of angst as his followers split into decidedly different camps on the issue. But the real kicker was when her barely coherent argument was punctuated by the fact that she was his cousin, talking about illegal immigrants who were in his extended family. Yikes. He didn't even know it (and it didn't change his position). But there were consequences.

Does 'personal branding' mean we need 'couples branding' and 'family branding' too?

This is one of many reasons that personal branding doesn't work. And it is the main reason that I am always perplexed when social media professionals argue that personal branding ought to be an ever-constent concern. Yes, the same people who advise organizations can't control their brands are sometimes the same people advising individuals that they ought to control their online brands. Are they kidding?

If you think it's difficult to manage a message within an organization that can set some semblance of guidelines, then you might as well lower your expectations for personal branding where no such guidelines exist. Well, except for those folks who ask their better halves (and friends) to seek approval.

Can you imagine doing the same with all your friends and family members? 

Years ago, I wrote a little post about Tom Cruise to illustrate the pitfalls of personal branding and the paradox of expected behavior, whether or not someone pursues personal branding as a means to an end. The point I was trying to make then — the fragile brand theory — is the further away someone drifts from the reality of who they are, the more damaging any deviation from that brand becomes.

It also explained why some public figures are expected to be saints with no room for error and others are expected to be sinners with reckless abandon. But what I didn't write about then was that the entire image is dependent upon those who claim to know you best. And that means any personal branding deck is stacked with wild cards that undo anything that isn't authentically you or, worse, the contradiction of anything you've said or done, whether it is true or not.

Brands are fragile. Character is not. And even that is going to take hits. 

Recently, I reviewed this brilliant little thriller called Defending Jacob that underscores the point. The story, about an assistant district attorney whose son is accused of murder, illustrates just how fragile a brand can be. At the onset, the character is one of the most respected people within his community.

But when his son is accused, all those years of reputation building come undone. To make matters worse, his wife becomes fixated on the fact that the protagonist comes from a long line of violent men, the most immediate of which is incarcerated for murder. Never mind that he hadn't seen his father since age 5 or that he didn't share this dubious fact because of the baggage (and labels) that come with it; his wife still obsesses over whether or not she had a right to know before they were married.

Sure, the book is fiction. But the concept is not. People make judgments about all sorts of unrelated things, ranging from who you associate with to your extended family. Brands can't be controlled.

Five years ago, when online personal branding became the topic du jour, it all seemed easier. But that was only because there were fewer people actively engaged in social media. Nowadays, even those obscure family members (like the second cousin who always seemed like he came from another planet) and those long lost friends (like the one you ditched school with and told all sorts of secrets), can snap any brand you've built since then in a second. But those folks are only the tip of the iceberg. The person  sitting next to you is just as likely, even if they have no intention to do you any harm.

You can't control any of it. So you might as well be comfortable with it. It's just part of life. Live it.

Wednesday, April 25

Making Decisions: Are Consumers In Control?

I was sitting in a business meeting yesterday when someone posed an interesting point. Eighty percent of startups develop products they never intended, driven by the markets they never intended to enter as dictated by the consumer. Never mind that the figure — 80 percent — was anectodal and unattributed.

This thinking is all around us. Some people say that social media sparked a consumer revolution, one where executive edicts were traded up for crowd-sourced darlings. You know the story. Companies better listen to consumers or else. They know what they need and make everything better.

How does the public know what 'should be' when it doesn't know what 'could be?'

Sometimes the public is right. During the Bronze Age in Great Britain, which spanned 2100-750 BC, consumers had it right. The early metal work started by the Beaker culture continually improved over hundreds of years until the final phases when Britain and the rest of Europe produced classic leaf-shaped swords.

For all we know, consumers would have refined bronze work for several thousand years more (like some cultures around the world did) if it hadn't been for the inconvenient introduction of another metal that would eventually sweep across Europe between 800 BC and 400 AD (or so). Iron and steel changed everything, including the entire socio-economic system that made people comfortable.

But can you imagine the change if we were experiencing it today? Some corporations would have argued evolving from bronze to iron was idiotic. Not only is iron more difficult to smelt and more costly to shape, but consumers would also be complaining about higher prices for a stronger but more brittle metal.

That's all fine and good, I suppose, until those guys with the iron cut through your defenses.

So what if this so-called 80-20 rule is right? What do you want to do? 

Sometimes I think businesses hire too many people who guess at so-called guarantees. The reality in business, much like life, is that all models only work sometimes and all guarantees are guesses at best. And that makes the riddle of bronze vs. iron nothing more than a parlor trick.

What I mean by that is: most decisions are never as clear cut as "do we fulfill the public need for better bronze or go with the gut of the guy in the back room and build out our iron division." Instead, they are littered with intangibles. You know, the guy in the back room could just as feasibly be working on a ham sandwich, in which case refining bronze might be better than hurling lunch meat.

So, it really does depend on the team and our best guess, just as history teaches us. Right. Some people backed beta and others picked up VHS. Flash forward a few dozen years only to find out that both decisions were wrong because DVDs, er, Blu-Rays and digital files win for now.

All this leads to a different approach. It seems to me that business choices have nothing to do with sizing everything up into 'either' and 'or' columns. Companies are better off innovating products and services that consumers have never seen and then refining those innovations once they are released in the marketplace based on consumer input, while keeping a watchful eye any inspirations that occur within every marketplace with every launch. That, of course, and everything needs to be weighed against what's next — information and ideas and innovations that consumers know nothing about it.

Ergo, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion because the guy in the buyer's back room had just as much time but came up with a ham sandwich. They called it Timeline. Meanwhile, Instragram went niche.

Monday, April 23

Branding: Why I Stopped Worrying About Being Batman

There has been plenty of buzz-up over Peter Shankman's declaration that people have one brand — not personal or professional (hat tip: Olivier Blanchard). And while this verdict has garnered some attention because Shankman is well followed, the epiphany isn't so special.

It has always been true, even if "brand" is the wrong word. He's talking about character.

"Every single day, someone directs me to their LinkedIn profile to learn more about them. You know what I do when they do that?" Shankman says. "I go right to Facebook and search on their name there. Why? Because I know they're on their best behavior on LinkedIn, but on Facebook, they're going to be 'real.' Guess what? I'm not the only person who thinks this way."

In his example, he's right. People share different things in different places.

So unless you are a superhero — Superman, Batman, Spiderman,  Iron Man, and the like — there is no division between your personal and professional lives. In fact, superheroes aren't so good at having two either. Even people who swap their public personas with secret identities by finding the closest phone booth or sliding down a bat pole, tend to struggle in attempting to juggle multiple personalities.

But that is not to say Shankman is right. He is presenting a conversation starter, not a conclusion.

People ought to give up on brands. People ought to give up on judgments. 

As a society, we set different behavioral boundaries in different places: Someone might behave differently in church than they would at the local pub. It's a mistake to think just because you are exposed to someone at only one location or the other somehow means they are pulling a fast one.

On the contrary, the fact that they exhibit appropriate behaviors in two different environments is admirable. It demonstrates how they can adapt to a variety of social settings. In fact, if people acted the same in church as they did in a pub, you might be more concerned about them.

The same can be said about social networks too. People act differently on Facebook and LinkedIn because each community has different behavioral expectations. And, for many people who work in communication-related fields, we probably have a lot more than merely two. Everyone does, really.

Given that, the opposite of what Shankman is getting at bears truth too. People who are able to encapsulate their entirety into a single "brand" that consists of readily available attributes would be remarkably 1-dimensional and probably boring. At minimum, they are most likely faking it.

Let's face it. If you can fit everything about yourself within the confines of an elevator speech that people can actually remember, then you have a bigger problem than figuring out what to write down on the cocktail napkin so you can commit it to memory. Well-rounded people are not organizations where a mission, vision, and voice encompasses an agreed upon direction for every facet of operations.

In fact, this chronic need to ferret out the "truth about people," as Shankman suggests, says more about those lurkers than it could ever say about the people they investigate. Short of discovering someone is ethically and morally dysfunctional or engaged in something illegal, why can't we learn to accept what people want to share with us?

How I learned to stop worrying about my brand like Batman.

When I was just beginning my career, long before social media, I was especially concerned about my professional brand. I would literally adopt a different demeanor, dress, and attitude to exhibit a certain sense of serious professionalism to offset my youthful age, a barrier for many overly judgmental prospects.

While it worked well enough, there was some consequence. Being overtly aware of everything you say, do, and share (as a by-product of what you project) can be stifling. It also creates the propensity for fear and doubt because purposely exhibiting certain qualities also means chronically keeping score.

Isn't that the fundamental reason most people are afraid to speak in public? They are too worried about what other people might think of them. Did they like what I said? Do they see me as an expert? Do they agree with my conclusions? And so on and so forth.

It was too maddening to maintain. So, I gave it up. Instead, I decided to adopt a basic principle. I care what people think, but I don't care what they might think of me. Why should I? I'm a complex person.

People are too complex for a single brand. Get over it.

I like Mozart as much as metal (as well as alternative, punk, country, rap, hip hop, folk, etc.). I am both fiscally conservative and socially committed. I have faith, but don't measure others against my beliefs. I enjoy clinical books that some people call boorish and contemporary books that others call controversial. I wear a suit when the occasion calls for one, and Doc Martens when it does not.

I could fill a million file cabinets with contradictory likes and another million with things that I haven't made up my mind about. And I certainly don't want to share them all with everyone or, in some cases, with anyone. So what?

If someone is going to imagine a "brand" about me, it will likely depend upon the setting where they meet me offline. So why ought it be any different online? When I eventually decided to make a public page beyond my personal account on Facebook a few weeks ago, it had nothing to do with branding or ego and everything to do with privacy and context.

In other words, while some subjects cross over, others do not. People who want to read about communication-related topics are a little less interested in commentaries about music, literature, and movies. People who want to contact me for a job don't really need to know that I went to a musical production a few nights ago. People whom I have a conversation on Twitter don't need to be part of the conversations I have with select friends and family (and don't really want to be, either).

Sure, Shankman is right that the boundaries between personal and professional sometimes blur, but the course correction doesn't need to be a burden to the individual so much. It needs to burden society.

Just because information exists doesn't mean we need to rifle through it all like an investigative reporter, looking for way to add up the labels and deliver a judgement. If we do need to do that, then it might say more about our own characters than anything we can uncover.

Friday, April 20

Going Social: NASA Turns Earth Day Blue

While NASA sometimes struggles with public relations to justify loftier goals and big ideas like a moon colony, there is no doubt that the agency is starting to find footing with social media. While the program is best described as fledgling (only because it lacks cohesion), there is something that can be learned from it.

Specifically, NASA is hosting Earth Day activities for three days in Washington D.C. and two days in Long Beach, Calif., but its physical presence is only the beginning of its efforts in support of Earth Day. Portions of the program will take advantage of real-time communication and engagement.

How NASA Communicates On Earth Day. 

• National Mall in Washington D.C. The main location will be held in Washington D.C., with three days of displays and presentations open to the public at the "NASA Village," mostly held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. On Friday, there will also be live presentations hosted on the Earth Day Network stage (12th Street and Jefferson Drive SW).

Live Webcast And Scientist Chat. Focusing on A High-Tech Checkup of Earth's Vital Signs on Saturday, NASA scientists will take people on a world tour from the vantage point of space, providing insights that can only be made possible from orbiting sensors. The webcast is scheduled to air 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 21. It will be viewed online at the NASA Village.

NASA Earth Day Video Contest. Independent of these efforts, NASA is asking people to share their vision of what NASA's exploration of Earth means by creating a short 15-second to 2-minute video. The contest is being hosted by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and participants are invited to draw from NASA's image gallery. Submissions will be accepted April 22 to May 31.

• NASA Center Activities, Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Other than being mentioned via NASA's Twitter and Facebook accounts, there will be another location-based event on Saturday and Sunday. Held at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., attendees will share science research about our ocean planet, using exhibits and hands-on learning demonstrations for all ages.

How NASA Could Have Communicated Earth Day. 

All of the above efforts are admirable and certainly a step in the right direction, especially because they employ both physical locations and social media. But I cannot help wondering how NASA could have created a campaign with a greater national or global scope, something that could have captivated the world. Such a campaign might have included:

• YouTube video contest leading up to the Earth Day event (as opposed to after the fact).
• A social media campaign encouraging the media and bloggers to support an event.
• Ten physical locations supporting three days of featured events at staggered times (plus exhibits).
• The eleventh location would naturally be held on the International Space Station.
• A dedicated Ustream program that cuts into main events at each location on a rotating basis.
• Social media support for all of those rotating activities over the course of three days.

The concept is only a thumbnail, but NASA has enough locations around the United States to tighten its proximity to the public across the country — Texas, New Mexico, and Florida not withstanding. Such an effort could possibly bring the nation together on the successes of NASA not just in space, but on planet Earth as well.

Then again, I've never understood why this country hasn't made an effort to declare a national Space Day (of observance) on July 20, enabling NASA to make Earth Day a minor practice run for a much bigger event. After all, July 20 remains one of humankind's greatest accomplishments, underscoring that our destiny points to the stars if we ever want to gain a better perspective about the planet we call home. It seems to me, we don't think about space exploration enough.

Wednesday, April 18

Making Lures: Oooo Pinterest Is So Pretty

Do you remember Dory being hypnotized by a pretty little light in the animated film Finding Nemo by Disney? Or maybe you remember how much fun she had bouncing a squishy little jellyfish. Or maybe you remember how much fun they had swimming with a shark until its addiction to white meat kicked in.

Pinterest is filled with those moments. But it's not Pinterest you have to worry about. 

There aren't so many lures on Pinterest as there are lures off Pinterest — enough tips, tactics, and strategies to game the buzzed up social sharing network to fill an ocean. Learn to say no to them.

There is no such thing as a Pinterest strategy, let alone eight of them. And pitching doesn't have much to do with repinning other people's pins just to attract attention to a wall of marketing fodder on a network. In fact, the entire reciprocal push of other people's stuff so they will push yours is becoming passé. People see through it, mostly.

There are always those legal considerations too. Plopping every photo from your company on Pinterest is paramount to giving up any copyrights (which isn't so bad unless you're a photographer or those pics have monetary value). And that doesn't even account for accidental repinning infringements, with your company being much more interesting to any infringed party than a lone network participant.

But I don't really want to get too wrapped up in making a win-lose column about Pinterest as much as I want to offer up some common sense. When your communication strategy begins to become so benign that you count pins, repins, likes, and comments as your objective, what you're really saying is that you have nothing to offer. Do something different with Pinterest if you are going to use it. It's simple.

The best "strategy" for Pinterest is to use it like participants do. Don't try to game it for glory. 

The best online communication comes from natural interests that are designed with the company's intent in mind, not a means to grab up flash-in-the-pan attention. If anything, all those tactics tend to backfire.

• Review your organization's mission, vision, and values.
• Elevate your plan to see if the network augments anything.
• Consider relevant content you can share at the right time.
• Become a participant without any agenda other than quality.
• Work at being a beneficial presence not someone who benefits.

That's my list of five, but it might not make sense for anyone who hasn't seen it through to execution. Personally, I enjoy Pinterest but it doesn't fit this marcom slant beyond the occasional educational and psychological threads. So I don't develop sneaky ways to force it.

The platform is much more in sync with Liquid [Hip], a music, film, fashion, and travel review site. But even with relevant content, we didn't make a marketing channel to push anything. Instead, I integrate what other under-the-radar creative people find with our own. And mostly, they pin it before we do.

The idea is to make like-minded quality content indistinguishable to the content we create — which is precisely how people use networks without agendas. Most people pin to express something. Maybe you can too.

For example, if you have a parks and recreation department, maybe you could host a beautiful park photography board (with photographer permissions). If you are a tech company, maybe you can share like-minded innovations. If you are a restaurant, maybe you can highlight recipes that you have tried to make at home (along with some from your establishment). If you are a general contractor, maybe you can have a board that celebrates architecture or designers. And the list goes on...

There isn't any mystery to using Pinterest. The only mystery is how you can avoid the temptation to use it for anything other than the intent of the network. It isn't really about ROI as much as market position.

Specifically, you have to ask if you are one of them or just trying to use them. If it's the latter, skip the pinning and mind the "teaching" lures that promise marketing. Some lights have ugliness attached.

Monday, April 16

Social Networking: Moms Know Best

If you have ever wondered why some companies cater to moms more than any other group online, a new study by Performics, a marketing firm owned by Publicis Groupe, recently shared its answer. After studying nearly 3,000 active U.S. social networkers, the firm concluded that mothers were "more versatile, present, active and engaged users of social networking sites, compared to other women."

Not only were mothers 61 percent more likely than other women to own a smart phone, they are also more likely to be active on social networking sites. Specifically, they were 16 percent more likely to visit Facebook and 46 percent more likely to visit Google+ on a daily basis.

But even outside of the study, there is ample evidence of how important moms can be to a social network. In fact, despite noted policy problems, moms are the catalysts behind the success of Pinterest, which reported 16.23 million unique users last February.

It is now one of the most active social networks online despite that 80 percent of its participants were female (March 2012). And, according to another study, almost all "mom bloggers" are actively engaged in Pinterest (as much as 98 percent) with  90 percent describing it as fun, 67 percent using it for organization, and 60 percent browsing beautiful things.

Do you know what other social network moms embraced? Right. A little app called Instagram that Facebook recently purchased for $1 billion. The irony? Facebook isn't among many moms' favorite social networks, despite them visiting it on a daily basis to connect and keep up.

Moms have a long history of engaging and organizing on social networks. 

When most people look back at some of the most spirited successes and failures online, most of them are linked to moms. They were the catalyst behind the Motrin headache, were part of the GAP logo retraction, continue to be part of McDonald's outreach efforts, prompted one of the largest recalls in Maytag history, and were among the first to express their distaste over the Tropicana logo change too.

In terms of the biggest disasters mentioned above, the reasons seem clear enough. Moms are reported to be 75 percent more likely than other women to trust information they receive from companies through social networking sites. And, as a result, they tend to react more aggressively when that trust is broken.

Marketing to moms might make marketers think twice about quick fixes. 

There have always been benefits to including moms in the online marketing mix. But there are some downsides for companies that are reckless with their messaging. Moms, unlike many other groups, have a greater awareness and more experience influencing, participating with, and promoting brands.


View more presentations from Performics

They are 45 percent more likely to make a purchase as a result of a recommendation on a social networking site than other women, including apparel (54 percent more likely), cars (64 percent more likely), and travel (46 percent more likely). They are also more likely to recommend companies/brands via social sites (34 percent), discuss companies/brands on social sites after seeing an ad elsewhere (48 percent), talk about companies/brands they follow on Facebook (24 percent), link to a company/brand ad (23 percent), post a company/brand ad (53 percent), and share interesting or relevant content about a company/brand (50 percent).

In other words, if your company isn't thinking about moms, then it isn't thinking. And if your company isn't thinking, these moms will be among the first to remind you who really knows best.

Friday, April 13

Making Stuff Up: The Six Word Stump

While many people wonder about the power of words, sometimes questioning the importance in their ability to turn ideas into action, many presidential hopefuls knew better. It's not uncommon for them to include concise, memorable six-word phrases during stump speeches delivered on the campaign trail.

"Federal government is overgrown and overweight." – Ronald Reagan

The National Constitution Center is planning to expand upon the concept of a six-word stump speech phrase by asking Americans to create their own — six words that would adequately convey the direction that people want to take America. The contest, Address America: Your Six-Word Stump Speech, will begin on April 24.

Entries may be submitted during the center's Primary Palooza Party as it unveils new exhibits and programs on the same day five states will hold primaries, or online at Address America, presented in partnership with Smith Magazine, which hosts the Six-Word Memoir project.

"Restore America to its own people." – Franklin D. Roosevelt 

"The Address America initiative is a unique and accessible way for people across the country to engage in the pivotal 2012 election," said National Constitution Center President and CEO David Eisner. "We hope visitors of all ages will join us to share in the excitement and make their voices heard through a six-word stump speech."

The event in not affiliated with any party. Admission to the Philadelphia event is free with the favor of a reservation (call 215.409.6700) and includes access to the Center's main exhibition: The Story of We the People, and the award-winning theatrical production Freedom Rising. The center will also enable participants to experience From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen for a special rate of $5. The Address America micro site will go live on April 24.

Why participate in Address America: Your Six-Word Stump Speech?

The National Constitution Center will be testing its new iPad touch screens, which enable museum visitors to submit their phrases and see them projected on displays in the Center's main exhibition. The online submissions will also be displayed in dynamic charts, maps, and word clouds that reveal information about election priorities across geography and party affiliation.

With enough participants, the National Constitution Center hopes to capture the sentiment of Americans using socially-engaged technology. It also challenges participants to write concise, well-thought out, and meaning messages that convey their ideas.

The center has other plans related to the Address America project, including giving participants the opportunity to "remix" their submissions and the submissions of others. Along with the interactive program, there will be objective information about election issues, the candidates, and the U.S. Constitution.

Some other upcoming plans include turning Address America into a road show, with stops in Tampa Bay, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Appearances will also be made in the four cities hosting presidential and vice presidential candidate debates.

In all locations, participants will be asked to share their six-word stump speeches on video, to be featured on the Center's website, social media channels, and Constitution Daily blog. Following the election on Nov. 6, 2012, the Center will continue to engage audiences by inviting six-word submissions of what Americans hope to hear expressed on inauguration day 2013.

It's a clever idea that encourages everyone to express views and opinions in a real-time setting. I also like it because it encourages people to think and write, carefully crafting words to make a statement.

Wednesday, April 11

Shaping Experiences: Why Every Contact Counts

If you want to appreciate how important the customer experience can be, consider the airlines industry. Despite noticeable improvements in overall airline quality performance as measured in the 2012 Airline Quality Rating, consumer impressions of the airlines industry continue to lag and even falter.

The reason is evident. The global view of the industry is shaped by the collective past experiences of all customers.

"Consumer perceptions are shaped by past experiences," said Dr. Dean E. Headley, associate professor of marketing in the Department of Marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business, Wichita State University, and one of two co-researchers who head the project. "Small, often unnoticeable, outcome improvements do not get included into consumers' mindset very quickly."

Specifically, every time a customer has a negative experience related to an airline, it reinforces their personal negative perception of the airline and potentially the industry. In turn, disenfranchised customers share their experiences with friends and family, who immediately remember their own negative experiences or become hypersensitive to negativity if they will be traveling soon.

That's too bad, especially because there are countless stories and studies to confirm that negative experiences tend to be shared more often and remembered much longer. And while this phenomenon is not confined to the airlines industry, the industry is unique in being one of a handful of industries with an abundance of indistinguishable brands.

It's also unique because the industry invites (or is required to invite) third-party interruptions into the experience, which is exacerbated by fragmented teams who are more departmentally loyal (and sometimes location loyal) than company loyal.

There are about 16 points of contact, of which the airline can only manage half.

• The airline's individual marketing efforts and online presence.*
• Online booking agents that sell price-based fares.
• Reservationists and customers service phone lines in lieu of third parties.*
• Airport parking and traffic flow for arriving/departing flights.
• Self-serve kiosks that present new fees beyond the ticket price.*
• Ticketing agents, with less empowerment because of self-check in.*
• Airport security, interrupting the experience between ticketing and gates.
• Gate seating and a new team of passenger service agents to assist.*
• Airport and weather conditions that may or may not impact the flight.
• Baggage handlers, working to load the bags on the plane.*
• Flight attendants, who sometimes serve less and push product more.*
• Flight crews, with pilots who have varied degrees of styles and experience.*
• Other customers, who are extremely varied in how they interact.
• Destination airport, which presents new conditions into the mix.
• Baggage claim, which introduces any number of new experiences.*
• Airport parking, traffic flow, and car rental companies, indirectly.

Again, the oddity here is they are only responsible for little more than half of the experience in reality. But from the perception of a customer, the airline and the airlines industry experience begins the moment they arrive at the airport and ends with when they leave the destination airport.

One would assume that any company knowing this would work that much harder to ensure the areas they are responsible for create pockets of positive experiences where customers feel protected. But the truth is that most do not, with a few exceptions.

Specifically, Southwest Airlines continues to promote a service-oriented message and consistently scores the highest in passenger friendliness for consumers as a result (it is ranked fifth overall). AirTran, JetBlue, Hawaiian, Alaska make up the top four airlines in terms of quality, overall. (Virgin was not included in the Airline Quality Report, but would probably make the top five if it was included too.) Conversely, most airlines are not so cohesive.

Many set themselves up for negative experiences on the front end. 

Among some of the most common complaints from customers are delays at ticketing, hidden fees, extra charges for bags, and agents who forward standard service questions (like seating changes) to gate agents. All of these prime the customer for a bad experience before they ever reach airport security, which most consider unpleasant.

By the time people arrive at the gate, any additional negative experience can create an overall negative experience: a lost bag, flight attendant having a bad day, delays, missed connections, uncomfortable flight, etc. Generally, such experiences are only salvageable when customers stumble into one of those employees who genuinely champion customer causes or concerns. But even if these employees can salvage the moment, most cannot transform a soured experience into a positive experience.

Instead, the abundance of negative experiences only set expectations to be a negative experience, which is almost always easily confirmed and never suitably addressed. Until every individual airline elects to make changes, the industry will continue to falter — which is good news for the few that have brands that transcend being lumped into the industry.

A little more about the Airline Quality Rating survey.

The Airline Quality Rating survey measures on-time arrival and departures, denied boardings, mishandled baggage, and customer complaints to score each airline. Before the Airline Quality Rating, there was effectively no consistent method for monitoring the quality of airlines on a timely, objective, and comparable basis. Anyone can participate online.

The research is headed by Headley and Dr. Brent Bowen, professor and head of the Department of Aviation Technology within the Purdue University College of Technology. Their body of research is recognized as the most comprehensive within the airlines industry by the American Marketing Association, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the Travel and Transportation Research Association and others.

The most interesting aspect of the research right now is that "more than 50 percent of frequent fliers say air travel has gotten worse for them in the past year, despite the fact that overall airline quality performance has risen as measured in the recently released Airline Quality Rating."

Monday, April 9

Questioning Perception: Psychology And Communication

Every now and again, someone asks me why I decided to include psychology among the topics I cover on a communication blog. Part of it had to do with missing a field I was interested in several years ago (I'm about 6 credits shy of having degree in psychology). But that's only part of the reason.

All communication relies on psychology. In fact, some might argue that communication is just a middle man. Really, what communicators do is "think up" messages that they want other people to "think" too.

Sure, the two-part equation oversimplifies a complex sociological exchange, but it's easier to visualize. In reality, the psychology of several people usually shapes the message and then the communicator (writer, designer, etc.) passes it through their filters (articulate, artistic, etc.) to deliver to other people who form opinions and ideas based on that communication and based on the communication of others.

Think, communicate, think. And success relies on perception.

One of the many blogs I read to keep up on psychology includes Psyblog, which explores scientific research into how the mind works. It has many outstanding posts, columns, and stories worth reading. But one of them reminded me how important it is to understand how different people think in different environments.

All too often on social networks, communicators are instructed to create the community. Ironically, this is sometimes the opposite of what copywriters are taught in advertising (e.g., if you want to sell farm equipment, watching farm movies near Madison Avenue might not cut it). One recent post on Psyblog cuts to the heart of it. You have to understand people before you communicate to them.

• In a small town environment, 72 percent of people will offer to help a lost child. Only 46 percent will help in the city, with some of the non-helpers prone to behave aggressively toward them.

• In general, people are prone to create order out of chaos. As an example, they cite an old Milgram study that found only 10 percent of people who cut in line will be ejected. Most people won't do anything.

• The mind looks for familiarity, with 90 percent of people being able to identify a familiar person. The odds of recognition increase exponentially if those people stand out in some way, e.g., a mohawk will do. People, by the way, are more likely to talk to "familiar strangers" in unfamiliar settings.

• People are more willing to pass along messages that they feel are important or correspond to their own personal preferences. For example, in one experiment, abandoned letters were more likely to be mailed if they were addressed to "Medical Research Associates" as opposed to the "Communist/Nazi Party."

• People are natural joiners. In one study highlighted in the post, they point to another classic Milgram study. People join other people looking at a building where nothing is happening: 4 percent of the time if there is one person; 40 percent of the time if there are more than 15 people.

• Busy people in cities, they point out, are more likely to have superficial interactions, rush business transactions, and practice common social niceties, which Milgram equated to urban overload.

All of these examples represent some of the societal filters that impact or distract people from receiving a message. And the lesson here, while not as directly correlated as I could make it, holds some considerations that communicators might think about while they are coming up with what they want to communicate. Ergo, shocking disruption might not be as effective as being familiar in an odd place, doubly so if a few more familiar strangers happen to be standing around.

Of course, there are plenty of other considerations to make too. And those considerations vary as much as the number of micro-societies we make. Who you speak to can be as important as what you say.

Friday, April 6

Breaking Up: Customers Dump Brands On Networks

"There isn't any question that social media has become an increasingly important part of organizational communication. And although some people still call it a bandwagon, the general conversation about social media has transformed from convincing companies to consider it to teaching them how to implement tips and tactics.

But are tips and tactics really enough? Maybe not. Sometimes trying too hard to "woo" customers can alienate them more than win them over.

Social media can engage or irritate. It's all about communication.

At least that might be the takeaway from a study conducted by Relevation Research. It found that 52 percent of consumers have subscribed to a company or brand via a social network. But of those, one-third of them will dump the organization or brand after a few short weeks or months.

But that's not the worst of it. After those customers dump the brand, they are more likely to distance themselves from the brand online. Many report that they develop a negative impression of the brand. And, as a result, may shop less, spend less, or even turn to competitors.

"At present, marketers are too cavalier, and even abusive, with their approach to social media relationships because it's a powerful tool which can pay off but only if used thoughtfully," said Nan Martin, managing director at Relevation Research. "It's that very thin line between courting and annoying. Right now some brands are effectively drawing people in, but then undermining their equity by what happens next with their social media activity."

So what's the number one reason that fans or friends decide to ditch the brand? According to the research company, most leave because the brand comes on too strong — acting excessively clingy or posting, tweeting, and joking around too often.

The second most common reason is that the brand fails to engage, offer any additional value, or otherwise ignore the people who have taken the time to like them. One of the funniest lines pulled out from the research sums how people who break up with brands really feel.

"It's not you, it's me," they say. Or, in other words, they signed up because a friend did, lost interest, or simply decided that they liked too many other brands and somebody had to go.

Wednesday, April 4

Changing Health Care: Mobile Technology

If you want to consider just how much mobile technology could change lives, consider how it might save lives. One company, ER Texting, is already experimenting with one possibility — providing information that can help parents make decisions on which emergency room to visit based on wait times.

The simple information-based service that taps mobile technology tracks current wait times at children's health care facilities. People who use the service merely have to send hospital text codes to 4 ER 411  and instantly receive the current wait times, hours of operation and direct contact information for participating hospitals.

Cincinnati Children's Hospital and Medical Center (CCHMC) and Miami Children's Hospital (MCH) are among some of the most recent hospitals to utilize these services. Since MCH implementation last May, more than 2,000 subscribers have used the service,

"When examining how to reach our patients and families, we knew we would have to meet them in the mobile space," said Kurt Myers, coordinator of community relations at CCHMC. "Providing an option to receive wait times via text was a logical first step into the mobile arena."

Not only does the service provide insight into wait times so parents might consider an alternate medical facility, but it also provides parents with expectations before they arrive. The service benefits the hospital with three locations too, helping control patient flow by increasing transparency.

Communication ought to augment the service, but the potential is limitless. 

Naturally, parents using the service shouldn't take to diagnosing life-threatening situations — adding additional minutes to their commute time to a hospital in life-threatening situations or opting to drive children who would be better off being transported by an ambulance — it still represents how technology can start to be used as a lifeline for medical purposes.

A few years ago, I was working with the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and we would frequently discuss the far future of emergency medical services. While the iPhone was still in its fledgling phases by comparison, there was always interest in developing a 9-1-1 service that could incorporate mobile into everyday operations — including the use of video technologies to pre-diagnose when patients called (giving first responders a pre-assessment of the scene and giving hospitals more information before arrival).

The wait time text messaging service certainly expands upon that concept, driving future life-saving concepts toward two-way communication models. Perhaps one day, patients will be able to call 9-1-1 and receive emergency medical assessments and direction (including visual aids) before the ambulance arrives. Or, if medical transport isn't needed, which hospital would be best suited given wait times and specialties. Cool stuff.

Sunday, April 1

Writing: How To Write A Social Media Book

Every now and again someone asks me why I don't write a social media book. I've been asked so often, in fact, that I don't have an answer that doesn't feel redundant. So maybe it's time I did it!

After all, the world needs more social media books. There are only 138,243 listed on Amazon and all of them are brilliant. Ninety percent of them have 4-star ratings or better. Some of them, usually those with the word "strategy" in the title, always earn five stars, especially when they are accompanied by at least one reviewer who says "this will be the last social media guide you will ever need."

Never mind that it is always the same guy who says that. The important thing to remember is to find the right untapped title, even if the book is virtually the same thing. So that's how I spent most of yesterday — looking for a title that would drive my content.

It didn't go well. Everything feels taken. Social Media Zen ... taken. How To Be Likeable ... liked.  Social Media Bible ... anointed. Social Media Playbook ... executed. New Rules, Revised ... third edition. Stardom in 30 Days ... out of print. Stardom In 28 Days ... the reason why. Then it happened ...

S.M.U.T. — Social Media for You Too. 
How To Write A Social Media Book.

That's right. Instead of writing a social media book, I've decided that what I really needed to write is a book about how to write a social media book. Not just any social media book — but the kind of social media book that everybody reviews and nobody actually reads!

So, what's inside my new book? Everything that you will ever need to know about social media, book writing, and life in general. I dedicate a good amount of time to writing about life in general because everyone knows the "M" in "SM" really stands for "Memoir."

It's how every social media book starts and ends. You can't be social unless you are transparent. And I'm going to be transparent right now. I haven't written anything. But you'll want to buy it anyway.

You're Only 10 Chapters Away From A Social Media Book!

Chapter 1: Foreword. The first 30 pages will be written by a real social media rock star. A social media rock star is anybody who has already written a book but the book hasn't sold more than five copies. As long as you promise to include their name on the cover "Foreword by the dude (or dudette) who wrote the last social media book nobody read," you are golden. Just remember to pay it forward.

Chapter 2: Talk About You. Who you are and what you did before social media is gold. If you can write about how you were down and out, depressed, going through personal hardship ... all the better. The point is that you have to prove you used a be a schmuck just like they are now, buying all sorts of these books.

Chapter 3: Establish Your Roots. You know the drill. Talk about how you were one of the first people to favorite "Will It Blend" on YouTube. Tell them how you hang out at Starbucks. Chuckle about the Dell Hell campaign. And mention that some Zappos employee once followed you on Twitter. You were there and being there is the same as being an expert.

Chapter 4: Have An Epiphany. Write an entire chapter on how in this weird and wonderful world online, you met some great and interesting people. Make sure to include as many names as possible because these people will be the first to review your book, even if they never see the cover.

Chapter 5: Point Out The Evil. Make a list of all the companies that aren't using social media and give them the face of evil. If evil is too strong a word for you, ignorant or old fashioned works. It doesn't really matter as long as you make the case that it's the little guys against the big guys.

Chapter 6: Talk More About You. Talk about how you started a blog, joined Twitter, jumped on Facebook, etc. This is an especially important chapter because it establishes you as an expert. It doesn't matter how many friends, fans, or followers you have. The formula for an expert is exactly how many friends, fans, or followers you have, minus 10 percent.

Chapter 7: Talk About Everybody Else. Invest a good amount of time distinguishing yourself from other social media gurus, ninjas, and rock stars. Talk about how they game the system and you do not. This establishes immediate credibility, separating you from your fellow snake oil salespeople.

Chapter 8: Make Good On Your Promise. This is where the heavy lifting really comes in to play. You have to make some stuff up that people can do right now to feel like they are making progress.

• Blog Strategy. Leave butt kiss comments on the top ranked blogs and write about them.

• Chime.in Strategy. Post a whole bunch of junk in other people's topical communities.

• Digg Strategy. Write headlines that people want, linked to the articles people don't want.

• Empire Avenue. Buy shares in people who are active and ignore everybody who isn't playing.

• Facebook Strategy. Bribe people to like you with contests and then blast them with content.

• Google+ Strategy. Post about what you do. People will love you and search engines juice+ you.

• Klout Strategy. Beg for people to give you +K and then brag about your score.

• Pinterest Strategy. Pin pics all day, every day, and repin the pins of people who like them.

• Twitter Strategy. Follow everyone on Thursday and then unfollow them all on Saturday.

• Quora Strategy. Ask your friends to write questions you want to answer and answer them.

Chapter 9: Motivate People. Rehash everything you just told them, except throw in some motivational self-help tips and quotes from famous people. Einstein is always a good one. "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds," he said. You rock star!

Chapter 10: Wrap It Up. Write about how social media changed your life and how you know it is going to change their lives too (and maybe their companies). Make sure you include all the places they can connect to you and how you now consider them kin — part of your special club and inner circle because you like people like you and they like you too.

See? I told you so. This is the perfect social media book about writing social media books! All you have to do is write 10-20 pages to fill each chapter (with the foreword being 30 pages long) and you can be the next person to have a gold mine of popularity and influence. All the cool kids know it and now you do too! A social media book is, after all, the best business card you will ever have.

April Fools! Hope you enjoy. For past lessons in social media, please see The Mushup Strategy, Bronx Zoo Influencer, SME: 14.0Clout Bellies, or almost anything labeled satire. Have a great day!

 

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