Friday, November 30

Boring People: I Tend Not To See Them

It might sound cynical, but many of conversations about communication are cyclular. They reincarnate themselves again and again.

Danny Brown knows it too. He recently noted the reincarnation of Kumbaya communication culture best described as the chronic urge to be nice-nice and non-critical.

Skip on having an opinion and play it all safe. As he points out in his piece on the subject, everybody is afraid that having an opinion that will drive away readers (and even advertisers) from their blogs or extended networks. Fear is a powerful motivator for most people, especially when they think they have something.

He takes a different tact. Boring isn't in ... it's invisible.

Brown makes a good point. There are around 200 million blogs being published (and I'm not sure this counts online newspapers and magazines). All of them are competing for some scrap of attention.

This isn't 2005 when there were only half that amount. Back then, publishing a blog felt like enough, especially in neglected niches (like communication was then). Everyone was pretty even back then, with everyone scrutinizing each other for giving bad advice (or good advice). There were even foils in the crowd, hellbent on criticizing everything. Some people hated it. I thought the industry needed it.

But then things took a turn. The various communication industries (public relations, advertising, emerging social media, etc.) developed a healthy dose of fear. The people who staked a claim were worried about image, stuff I used to liken to the borg or, better yet, pirates. I wasn't the only one.

Ironically, the people who promoted the idea of landing somewhere between neutral and nice had the most to gain. When all things are equal, people tend to gravitate to the most popular people and not the most popular content.

It's no surprise. This is the same phenomenon that occurs in media circles. Big brands can do almost nothing and get media attention. If a little brand does that same thing, nobody cares. Ergo, when Gen. Petraeus has an affair, expect headlines. When it is your neighbor, nobody cares — not even you (unless your spouse is involved).

It's the way the world works. If you only write to rubrics and rules, you're boring.

To compensate for the rebirth of vanilla, Brown suggests more bloggers play the part of a contrarian. And, for the most part, he's right. If you see something wrong, don't be afraid to point it out.

It doesn't matter who the author is or how big their following or how many times it's been shared. If someone doesn't vet the industry now and again, all sorts of oddball standards begin to take hold.

While you might earn some pushback or an occasional mob-like reaction from their loyalists, it won't stick. Any rub ups over opinions usually last no more than a few days or a week a worst. In a month or so, you'll barely remember it happened (whether it pops up in Google searches or not).

Well, some people might remember. But that requires a different tack all together. You have to be able to accept criticism before you offer some of your own. For example, I received all sorts of flack for criticizing and calling the demise of Utterz. But that all ended in a few months, after it folded.

Wednesday, November 28

Killing Media Advisories: For Immediate Release

A recent Ragan extra more or less declared the term "media advisory" dead, along with "for immediate release" as good measure. In fact, the eight reasons why public relations professionals ought to stop using these phrases was not only good for a laugh, but also shareable in some circles. Maybe so.

Number 5 was especially funny: "Just because a college professor or some PR agency taught you to write 'media advisory' or 'for immediate release' doesn't make it meaningful or right. (sic)" Keith Yaskin, who wrote the piece, is somewhat right. Those reasons alone don't make using the terms right or meaningful. But then again, neither does taking advice from a random hack.

Have news release headers lost their luster?

Maybe, but not for the comical reasons that Yaskin provides. If news release headers and instructive phrases have lost their meaning, it's because many public relations professionals never learned what it all meant from the beginning. Something was missed during their transition from copy editor to reporter or administrative assistant to public relations practitioner.

Let's start with the obvious. Headers are simply meant to tell journalists and television reporters what the content might be. A new release was supposed to contain news. A press release was supposed to contain information that may or may not be news (although some old school television reporters used to tell me they hated the term, given the association with printing). A feature release might contain soft news. A media statement was commentary from someone with an opinion or comment on something.

And a media advisory? Contrary to the chortle that media advisories are an attempt to masquerade as the U.S. Coast Guard, the header used to have real meaning. Media advisories were a heads up to media that something was going to happen — such as an event, opening, tour, press conference, public statement, etc. — that might be worth dispatching a news crew or photographer to cover it.

A media advisory wasn't meant to earn column inches or publicity pixels. All it was supposed to do was let the media know that something was going to happen that could constitute news —from the mundane (like an opening) to the bizarre (a new world record for the biggest hoagie). It was predictive. And as such, it wasn't necessarily ready for print or broadcast because it hadn't happened yet.

Why "for immediate release" lost its meaning in the hands of flacks. 

Much like news release headers were meant to be instructive, so was the cutline "for immediate release." It was never meant to be a standalone. Like headers, there were other options until some agencies (and now most agencies) started to use the phrase ad nauseum, causing people like Yaskin to toss up their hands and chuckle.

Joining "for immediate release" was "for release at will," "for releases before or after [date],*" "for release by [date]," and so on and so forth. It worked, until public relations firms and in-house organizations thought that "for immediate release" carried a greater sense of urgency.

They were guided by the mistaken belief that everything they sent required immediate attention and immediate coverage because that is what they taught their clients to expect. Never mind that journalists used to hang onto "for release at will" content a little longer in case the news of the day dictated that the story might fit (and hadn't gone stale).

Sure, it's less likely they would keep it today because content is cheap and there is a steady stream of it, every single day. As I pointed out in one of my presentations, there are approximately 1.4 million news stories put out every day and 4.3 million news releases. Of those, only about 140,000 news stories are inspired by news releases, making the odds of coverage rather slim beyond a blurb or passing mention.

Those figures, by the way, are two years old. There is a good chance we've doubled the content overload in the last two years, without even counting all those posts, white papers and whatnot.

Don't blow things up until you have a backup plan. 

If there is one thing I've learned after a few decades in business (as well as community advocacy), it is that ignorant people are quick to cut anything they don't understand. It's especially easy when they don't have any industry knowledge, insight or history.

Right. All those meaningless little things might actually mean something, but you have to take the time to know what they are and why they are perceived to be important. If the answer is useless — such as "we do it this way because we've always done it this way" — then it makes sense to let it go. But if there is a meaning behind the apparent madness, then it might be worth preserving.

But then again, I'm not making a case to preserve "media advisory" or "for immediate release." If neither the journalists and broadcaster nor public relations practitioners know the meaning of these headers and instructional phrases, then they might as well be dropped. Or maybe not.

The choice is really up to each professional or quasi practitioner. Use it or don't use it, but at least you won't be ignorant as to why it was used in the past. As for me, personally, I'll include whatever clearly communicates to the intended audience whether others want to muddle the meaning or not.

*As a side note, it might be helpful to know that "for release after [date]" is different than an embargo. 

Monday, November 26

Chasing Content: B2B Doubles Down On Ineffective

According to the Content Marketing Institute, B2B marketers are bullish on content marketing. Almost 90 percent of B2B businesses (88 percent) will retain or increase (54 percent) their content marketing budgets in 2013. Ten percent aren't sure if their budgets will be increased/decreased, leaving only 2 percent expecting to cut their content marketing budgets.

While all this data suggests that content marketing — articles, blogs, infographics, email newsletters, and social networks — works, it's not working for most. Only one-third of these marketers believes their content marketing is effective. So why invest more?

B2B doubles down on quantity, not quality. 

With the majority of B2B marketers developing large in-house teams to manage all their content marketing efforts, many think that their greatest challenge will be producing enough content. That means more posts, more email, more social network updates, and more [fill in the blank] will be the new measure of success.

What many don't realize, however, is that they are contributing to the largest marketing arms race in history. It's the outcome of a strategy, if we can call it a strategy, that suggests whoever produces more content wins. Yes. Over saturation alone, literally drowning the audience in communication, will somehow lead to greater market share.

When some marketers ask why they don't believe their content marketing is effective, few think it is quality, purpose, or value of the content. Most seem to think they either need more content or bigger advertising budgets for their tactical campaigns. (Tactical is an important word here, given that the majority of companies employ 18 content tactics on average.)

It makes sense that they think this way. Seventy-nine percent consider brand awareness the number one priority for their content marketing efforts. Almost half believe that sharing content is an important measurement. More than half believe that website traffic is a leading measurement criteria for success.

It's also unfortunate that they are mostly wrong. Sound strategies that produce tangible outcomes produce success. The rest of it is magic, with maybe a little smoke and mirrors.

On any given day, I can increase my site traffic by several thousand percent. It doesn't take much effort. A few ad buys here and there can make the least valuable content ever published look popular. The real question is whether or not the content is effective, which is directly dependent on strategic goals and not shares or likes or the usual measures.

Setting goals to sales isn't a suitable measure either. All marketing efforts directly or indirectly support sales. If they didn't, why would a company chose to do them? It doesn't really make sense.

Setting the right objective is a simple concept that eludes many marketers. 

There are dozens of ways to slice strategic communication, but let's start with one — the most obvious. Marketers ought to be less concerned with brand awareness and more concerned with brand integrity.

Brand integrity means that not only do people know who you are, but also what you do and, ideally, that you do it well. Awareness alone is futile. Ergo, Gen. Pertraeus has more brand awareness now than at any time in his career. The scandal ought to be a footnote in his career and not the other way around. It might have been a footnote too, but awareness has eclipsed any previous integrity that reached a smaller audience.

The point is what we communicate is ten times as important as how much we communicate. And what we communicate ought to be based solely on the objectives of the company.

Sure, there are a few baselines that ought to be considered minimums for certain media (e.g., writing a blog post once a month is not necessarily better than none), but marketers might start thinking smarter than simply trying to outproduce and outspend their competitors. If you don't think your content marketing is effective, it probably isn't. And if it isn't, it ought to be fixed before you toss in more dollars.

Friday, November 23

Building Spaces: Environments Impact Minds

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi
Fast Company recently covered a story in the Pacific Standard that explores how certain types of spaces affect our behaviors and ultimately our brains. Designers and programmers might take note of it.

Architecture isn't the only design that ties into neuroscience. When people click on a link and land on a page, design and organizational function create a cascade of immediate reactions, sometimes before anyone has the chance to read the first word. It dictates how we feel when we visit a platform.

The reason is simple. Our brains can't always distinguish the difference between stories, pictures, programs, and real-life experiences. This is the reason horror flicks can trigger our "fight or flee" mechanism. It's also why some photos, like the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, have an immediate calming affect on our mood. In at least one case, as Fast Company noted, it inspires clarity.

Thinking spatially, contextually and visually will become a dominant design driver. 

In fact, neuroscience studies in this fascinating field use virtual renderings of architectural models to test their theories. One of their many findings concluded that design is often responsible for making people feel lost or providing enough guidance to create a confident, intuitive sense of where they are going.



There is a dual edge to this kind of design theory, both architecturally and online. While our brains may have some design preferences that may be universal (something along the lines of feng shui), some of our preferences are built upon other environmental factors that help set our expectations.

Ergo, there is a reason that architectural movements tend to occur in waves or that Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ all create similar streams of content. Advertising design sometimes does the same (the dark and edgy advertisements that dominated much of the 1990s have fallen off, for example). But that doesn't mean designers and programmers ought to be concerned with trends alone.

There do seem to be universal design elements and structures that touch our subconscious, which is why certain natural and classical architecture immediately appeal to our senses and feel timeless. Such consideration could make the design-build stage of everything — advertisements, websites and social networks — much more effective in delivering a memorable, automatically comfortable experience.

Perhaps there is a Pinterest connection to intuitive design.

This could even be why Pinterest took off as its own unique niche network. While there were several sites that were launched (and relaunched) around the same time, Pinterest propelled itself forward because it stumbled upon an interesting, universally appealing platform design that felt natural.

Sure, some people believe that Pinterest took off because it was all about visuals. But it seems to me to be much more than that. While the structural layout wasn't necessarily original or new, it did take advantage of a more universally appealing design — one that "feels" cleaner than other networks but not overtly sparse as Google+ looked when it was originally rolled out.

In other words, it seems a few answers to why some platforms succeed and others do not might be more linked to design and neuroscience than we think. And if it is, better design-program integration will eventually become a priority.

Wednesday, November 21

Socializing Monkeys: SMAC! Takes Thanksgiving

If you have never head of Leslie Lehrman or Jennifer Windrum, the day before Thanksgiving is the ideal day for an introduction. Leslie Lehrman is dying of cancer. Jennifer Windrum is her daughter.

And yet, despite the direness of their situation — that this may be their last Thanksgiving together — they and their family are grateful. For the past seven years, Windrum has used social media to chronicle her mother's fight against lung cancer. Today, more people are aware that lung cancer research is being neglected for all the wrong reasons because of their efforts and awareness always leads to action.

A social media campaign becomes a catalyst for action.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to ask Windrum a few questions about WTF? For Lung Cancer and SMAC! Sock Monkeys Against Cancer as her story became a good will pick on Liquid [Hip]. There, you will find some of the back story. Here, I want to ask for your help.

SMAC! Sock Monkeys Against Cancer only has a few days left to raise $35,000. While Windrum will meet her minimum $29,000 funding requirement, she really needs $35,000. She has until Nov. 30 to raise it, but she needs some additional help because her mom took a turn for the worse this month.

Windrum has been where she is needed most, bedside with her mom. Tomorrow, even as their family gets together for Thanksgiving, she will be there too. Ten years ago, this inconvenient truth would have canceled any fundraising effort. But social media is different. For every minute Windrum cannot be online, she has a network of friends who are willing to step up. She has raised more than $20,000.

The funding is to launch a new sock monkey product line with two very interesting twists. The sock monkeys are always sold in pairs so any time someone purchases a SMAC! sock monkey, another will be sent to someone with cancer. And any time someone purchases a pair, it will raise funds for the National Coalition of Oncology Nurse Navigators (NCONN) and Liz’s Legacy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Eppley Cancer Center.

The first directly benefits cancer patients because NCONN provides advocates who help cancer patients with appointments, phone calls and treatment regimens. The second directly funds cancer research.

Why sock monkeys? 

On one of the many occasions that Lehrman traveled to various medical centers around the United States, Windrum gave her two sock monkeys — a Mother's Day gift from her twin daughters. Those two sock monkeys helped to remind her mom that no matter what happened she would never be alone. She had people who loved her, their hugs were tucked inside for whenever she needed them most.

They worked. And personally, I am not surprised.

Having lost many family members to cancer, including my two grandparents who raised me until I was 10, the smallest symbols of our affection always become the greatest catalysts for them to face whatever comes next. And because of Lehrman and Windrum, these little guys carry with them not only our love but also a gesture that sweeps across hundreds and thousands of cancer patients and survivors just like them.

I am especially touched by the Lehrman-Windrum story because Windrum gave up everything her career might have become in favor of a career tied to a cause that most people don't understand. It was especially noble given there is virtually no funding for lung cancer research because it has become associated with the stigma of smoking.

But perhaps that makes the story all the more compelling. Although Lehrman never smoked, she has become the victim of this stigma. The lack of lung cancer research is as responsible as the disease.

While they both know any cancer research funding will come too late to help Lehrman, it might one day save the life of someone else who has lung cancer. It currently accounts for 30 percent of all cancer deaths and 80 percent of the people who are afflicted have never smoked or gave up smoking decades ago.

You can join me and help change this. While every $10 donation is an amazing show of support, $50 or more will include your choice of the first two sock monkeys designed specifically to help cancer patients and cancer research. Larger pledges include sending dozens of monkeys to cancer patients too.

You can learn more by visiting the pledge form at StartSomeGood. If you cannot help with a donation, then perhaps sharing this story or passing along this ask will help it find someone who can help. Or maybe you could even can save a little time at the Thanksgiving table tomorrow and smile at everything you have to be grateful for. Just ask Lehrman and Windrum. They are grateful for any and all support.

Monday, November 19

Being Everything: PR Won't Find Answers For Petraeus

The most recent sex scandal to shake up government was General David Petraeus. And this story, like many that have come before it, has some public relations professionals asking questions. Specifically, they wonder if the time has come to rewrite the public relations rules for sex scandals.

Not everyone thinks so. Some people are starting to wonder whether public relations professionals are biting off more than they can chew to become de facto organizational ethics coaches. As James Savage points out in his guest post on Communication Ammo, reputation management might not even be within the purvue of public relations.

As Savage quotes risk management expert Dr. Thomas Kaiser: "The role of PR department is essential for 'clean-up' operations following a reputational risk (sic) event, but they should not be key in its active management. Reputational risk is not a PR exercise — the underlying problems of any event need to be solved rather than actively managed after the event."

Kaiser is mostly right. Public relations professionals might face certain risks associated with their field, but they aren't in the business of risk management. However, I do think it is within the purview of public relations to predict consequences, thereby providing counsel to organizational leaders and implementing a plan to serve the organization and public interest.

As noted before, there is a very clear difference between disaster planning and managing public relations related to disaster planning. While some public relations professionals might be knowledgeable enough to address ethics, reputation and disaster management, the doing is different than the talking. When it comes to Petraeus specifically, there is another question that needs to be asked.

Who does the public relations professional serve again?

If public relations is serving the organization and public interest, there isn't much to be done about Gen. Petraeus. To date, in fact, I have never read a definition of public relations that suggested they serve the organization, public interest, and anyone within the organization that has a lapse of good judgement or character flaw.

Other than ensuring the public that there was no breach in security or mitigating any damage because there was a breach in security, the CIA (while perhaps embarrassed) doesn't owe anything to their former head. He obviously wasn't representing the agency when he engaged in the private affair.

In other words, Gen. Petraeus, not public relations, will have to mitigate his own wrongdoings. And even if he did hire a public relations practitioner to communicate this mitigation, they might offer insight into how the public might respond to any specific actions. Otherwise, that's about it.

Sure, there are times when a public relations professional might be called in some time after a mess has occurred but before it is broken to the public. But the ethical viewpoint is pretty clear, especially because public relations professionals do not have attorney-client privilege.

Ethics isn't confined to a single profession. It's for everyone.

When someone brings something wrong to your attention, you tell them it is wrong, refuse to participate or aid in covering up the wrongdoing, and demand immediate correction. Unless public safety is at risk, it is usually advised that the wrongdoer is given the opportunity to correct it on their own, with the understanding that the person they have attempted to being into their confidence will move to correct the problem if the wrongdoer does not. That's not public relations. It's ethics.

I might add that Brad Phillips is right about one thing. The pat crisis plan for sex scandals has worn thin. The public is growing weary of the "admit it, apologize for it, demonstrate remorse, and promise to never do it again" battle plan. That only works for the individual.

As Phillips points out, Newt Gingrich had a better answer. I don't mean it's something to duplicate. I only mean it was true for Gingrich. So maybe that is the best lesson at all. You have to be true to yourself before you can be true to others.

Friday, November 16

Persuading Publics: Who Are You Talking To?

national drop out rate
The Ad Council recently launched a new PSA campaign in support of education. The campaign, which promotes BoostUp.org, attempts to reach parents and reaffirm the importance of consistent attendance in class because of a startling but not surprising fact: nearly 7.5 million students (K-12) chronically miss school.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days in a given year, which is about 18 days. The hope of the Ad Council and U.S. Army is to bolster awareness that absenteeism and performance goes hand in hand. But one wonders whether the message will reach the right people — it's the same message they've been promoting for years.

Why good ideas sometimes miss the mark. 

It's an important message and a well-meant campaign. But there is some psychology missing from the creative strategy. Their own research alludes to it — students who attend school regularly in their early years are more likely than chronic absentees to read well, obtain higher test scores and graduate.

The key words, "early years," tell part of the missing story. Parents or other role models play a critical role in defining the importance of education well before children make a conscious decision to skip school. The first spot attempts to convey this point directly, despite taking a slightly cavalier approach.



The other factor, unaddressed in this spot or the other one that simply attempts to cleverly quantify the problem, is whether or not the children in question have developed a love for learning. And if they do love to learn, we probably need to understand what interferes with their desire to go to school.

It could be any number of factors: peer pressure (friends that don't value education), family pressure (parents who equate kids that care about education as an attempt to be "better" than them) or economics that require students who would be in school to either work or babysit for younger siblings.

There are also psychological pressures, ranging from the belief that they aren't smart enough or that education won't make a difference other than fostering dreams that won't come true. There are more stories and Boostup.org chronicles a few of them outside of the campaign.

Unfortunately, none of the new ads really address the problem. They only address the symptom, a frightening statistic that people feel powerless to change. Except, we can help change it — even if the organization seems to mostly drive volunteerism and donations. Here is a list of ideas.

What education really needs is more engagement.

As an instructor and also someone with an expressed interest in our education system, engagement is the key. In fact, one of the best programs created by BoostUp.org is the mentoring program because it truly addresses the need. According to the organization, kids with mentors are 52 percent less likely to skip school. That's a powerful number with the potential to cut 7.5 million absentee students in half.

It's also challenging in its scalability. Anyone who has school-aged children might already feel overwhelmed by the amount of homework they help their children with, making mentorship less obtainable. However, it does provide a direction to think about. There are three primary factors.

1. Students have to develop a love for learning. This is teacher driven, but some homes can reinforce the idea. If they don't have a love for learning, it's ten times harder to instill the value of education.

2. Students cannot have their education derailed outside of school. It isn't fair for parents to pit school needs versus home needs. This is parent driven, and probably the best place to think about a campaign — one that still attracts volunteers and donations but shows the consequence of parental decisions.

3. Students need to be engaged in more ways than school. It's patently proven that schools that introduce music programs see an uptick in school performance. It doesn't have to be music. It could be any special interest activity. It works for two reasons. It instills self-confidence (something they can do) and keeps them too busy to engage in activities that put them at risk. This is organization driven. If not part of the school, then offered through any number of after-school organizations.

People tend to cut all the statistics along socio-economic status, but I've never fully believed it. There are no socio-economic boundaries in kindergarten. Almost all children are excited to go. Almost all parents are proud of their child's first day. Maybe what people need to start focusing on is what changes in the dynamic between first grade and fourth grade, which lays the foundation for the rest of their education.

But more to the point. I'm bullish on the good work of BoostUp.org, but found the latest round of ads one off for effective. Laying a problem bare isn't enough to be effective. It has to change behavior. A different concept, such as one student taking two different paths in life, might better drive the message if the primary drivers are parents. The spot above, while clever, shows the problem without a solution that overrides parental denial. And even then, the real problem is a combination of all three outlined above.

Wednesday, November 14

Giving Traditional Ads Lift: Social Media

Coca-Cola Bears
One of the primary problems marketers and public relations professionals still face in attempting to explain social media is the measurement. It's a problem they created and they can't get out of it.

There are three reasons most social media measurements fail to impress executives. It's too broad in its attempt to quantify likes, followers, and fans. It's placed in a vacuum, without considering the interdependence of all marketing and communication. It's too direct response oriented, attempting to count clicks even if consumers respond to the social conversation in different ways — like visiting a store and actually buying something or bookmarking a link for future reference.

The reality of social media is the need for integration. 

New research published in the Journal of Marketing Research successfully creates a better understanding of the symbiotic relationship between traditional and social media. For 14 months, Andrew T. Stephen from the University of Pittsburgh and Jeff Galak from Carnegie Mellon University studied sales and media data provided by Kiva.org, an online company that facilitates small loans between individual investors and people in underdeveloped countries.

The authors considered a loan a sale, and categorized mentions of Kiva in newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio as traditional earned media, and mentions of Kiva on blogs and online social networks and communities as social earned media. In doing so, they found that each mention of Kiva in traditional media had the largest per-event impact on sales.

Over the time period studied, each unit of media publicity from a traditional media organization generated 894 additional sales from new customers and 403 additional sales from repeat customers. A blog mention, by comparison, generated 90 additional new sales and 63 additional repeat sales. A mention in an online community generated 99 additional new and 48 additional repeat sales.

The authors say the disparity between media forms is not surprising because traditional media typically has a much broader reach than social media. However, since social media mentions were much more frequent than those in traditional media, the authors found that when this was taken into account earned media in social channels had a substantially larger impact on sales than traditional earned media did.

The study also found that social earned media helps drive traditional earned media. "Conventional wisdom is that traditional earned media makes a large mass of people aware of something and then gets them talking. However, our findings suggest that the reverse may be more likely than previously thought," said the researchers.

Marketing, public relations, and communication needs to be integrated. 

You can find the study published here. But there is something else to consider. While awareness is frequently considered for its horizontal value (total impressions or reach), it has vertical value too — how deeply it penetrates, how long it will be remembered, how likely people will talk about it included.

When anyone mentions the Coca-Cola advertisements featuring polar bears, people respond with warm, affectionate, and almost nostalgic remembrance. This cultural penetration success story has very little to do with the total number of people reached times the total average of impressions per impression. Sure, those numbers help. But there are plenty of ad campaigns that never took off despite having the same numbers.

What made the Coca-Cola bears brilliant was the company's use of advanced animation (at the time) of the right characters at the right time while maintaining a hardwired connection to the fuzzy brand Coca-Cola wanted to reinforce. (Let's not forget that they did the same thing to Santa Claus.) It's pre-social success.

How this fits into social, though, is still pretty apparent. If an organization has a following on a social network, do you think those people will be more likely to see and remember a new ad? Or, perhaps, do you think people who see a new ad will be more likely to visit a social media outlet? Or, perhaps, if they share something related to the organization online do you think they might be sharing it offline too?

The point is that great communication doesn't confine itself to a medium. It's what gets in our heads or our hearts. Numbers alone will never do it. Because if it was all about numbers, every campaign would win.

Monday, November 12

Marketing To Races: The Biggest Lie In Politics

In post-election discussions, we can expect to see plenty of racial graphics. It's the kind of analysis that makes my skin crawl because it reinforces blatant ignorance — that people somehow pick candidates and political parties based on the color of their skin or presumed minority status.

Maybe some do — those that do are falling for a political parlor trick — but not really. It has much more to do with cultural identity as demonstrated by a study from Columbia Business School. The more someone identifies with cultural ideology, the more likely they are to be predisposed or sympathetic to specific issues — especially if they believe one candidate wants to reinforce that minority grouping and if that minority grouping believes (and is enabled to believe) they need help to "level" the playing field.

The reality is that minority groups don't need any special advantages, perks, or handouts to make it, at least not along racial or ancestral lines. To say that they do, it seems, is more racially loaded than saying they don't. Hispanics don't need "help" to make it. African-Americans don't need "help" to make it. German Americans don't need "help" either. While some people might need help to address some socio-economic disadvantages (e.g., growing up in a poor neighborhood), race doesn't play a factor unless people pretend it does. And if they pretend it does, then they likely have something to gain.

A personal and anecdotal analysis of minority status.

While some people argue that statistical data shows minorities have unfair disadvantages, they might consider that the continued reinforcement of such statistics is the problem and not the symptom. When you raise someone to believe that their racial minority is disadvantaged, they will eventually believe it.

The concept is easy enough to test. All you need to do is look to people who have the genetics of a minority but not the cultural upbringing of being in a minority, saddled by this concept that they are disadvantaged. Incidentally, I recently learned that I qualify to this unique subset.

My father's paternal lineage (my grandfather) was always a bit of a mystery. Most accounts speculated he was a Spanish-Irish solider serving in the British army. But in recent years, my German grandmother changed her story, saying that he was a Mexican-American serving in the American army (his name escapes her) in the post World War II theater around Berlin.

Not that I distrust her, but the news was somewhat of a surprise because it contradicted the little bit of ancestral thought that I had managed to scrape together for my kids. I was tired of guessing so I finally decided to splurge and purchase an ancestral DNA test. It turns out everyone was close, but wrong.

My missing 25 percent is Bolivian (with some distant Greek European). The United States lumps Bolivians as part of the greater Hispanic/Latino grouping used in politics. In fact, Bolivians represent the third-smallest Hispanic group in the United States. Genetically, for me, it's a dominant match.

Except, I never knew it. I was more inclined to think any early "disadvantages" were limited to poverty as well as a physical handicap (mentioned in comments) I was fortunate enough to leave behind. There was no predisposition in my life to think I would have a harder time succeeding because I was related to the Hispanic/Latino minority. I didn't need special grants. I didn't need to seek MOB status.

While I find it interesting that after almost 45 years that I qualify for these things — a minority group member is an individual who is a U.S. citizen with at least 25 percent Asian-Indian, Asian-Pacific, Black, Hispanic, or Native American heritage — it seems I had a different advantage. I wasn't saddled with the label. Interestingly enough, many Asians aren't either. As a grouping, they have no problem excelling as a minority group in the United States, even if their ancestors began in poverty.

In fact, they tend to be among the least likely to pursue MOB status. So are Portuguese-Americans (my wife is half Portuguese), which has an exceptionally unusual relationship to the Hispanic/Latino minority grouping as Gregg Sangillo noted about Benjamin Nathan Cardoza's service on the Supreme Court.

Being a minority, identifying as a minority, marketing, and politics.

In much the same way Supreme Court Justice Cardoza has been used to discuss the uniqueness of  Portuguese-Americans, I think there is a deeper issue. There is a difference between "being" a minority and "identifying" as a minority because the thought of minorities continues to permeate our culture, both in marketing and especially in politics. To that end, it seems there are two takeaways.

• Reinforcing that minorities are disadvantaged is a lie. The people who continually attempt to label minorities as disadvantaged so they can "help" them does them a disservice. Individuals who have no knowledge of being in a minority group tend to excel at the same pace, suggesting race or ancestral heritage has very little to do with success. What is more damaging is the chronic promotion that these individuals are disadvantaged. They have a better opportunity to succeed without such dubious distinctions. They have a better chance at excelling in education without specialized tests or educational programs. And you can expect this to be heard more and more often by the Supreme Court.

• Cultural identity is a temporary status. Over time, cultural identity tends to change. Even if a certain minority group doesn't fully assimilate in a geographically-based culture or tends to maintain some semblance of their heritage, the minority group does change over time until it takes on characteristics that uniquely align to the origin. Ergo, in another 100 years, most Mexican-Americans will have almost no commonality to their Mexican ancestors (even if they preserve their heritage), much like Mexico bears no distinctions to Spanish or Native Americans. It has been this way throughout history and political pundits who ignore this simple truth will eventually be dismissed as being irrelevant to the bigger issues of ideology regardless of skin color.

Sure, I suppose both categories of exploitation among marketers and politicians (marketers to boost sales and politicians to curry votes) have some short-term gain. But over the long term, there is no truth to it, except one. The more we classify individuals based on race and ancestral heritage, assigning preset stereotypes into how they behave or what is important to them, we fall prey to circumventing the collective American experience in favor of one that panders to narrower and narrower special interests. I'd rather pursue Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision. It just doesn't matter.

Well, it does matter from a personal perspective. I am curious and fascinated by my newly discovered ancestors as much as I was curious and fascinated by the ones I have always known. Otherwise, I'm still just the same person before I knew anything (because racial and cultural identity is not innate).

Friday, November 9

Setting Education Standards: Is Meeting Them Good Enough?

When my son comes home with a C on an English paper, I usually don't give it much thought. There are always other opportunities to earn an A on something else to balance everything out. This time was different — the teacher had forced a four-point project into the five-point letter grade system.

In other words: 4 points equaled an A, 3 points equaled an C, 2 points equaled an F, and 1 point didn't even register. When my son asked about the grade (because we don't accept C work without explanation), the teacher said not to worry about it. He met standards. Meeting standards is C work.

Never mind that there was some confusion over what was taught. The teacher had taught the students how to meet the standards, but did not cover the much more subjective criteria to exceed them. She didn't know how to because the school district had recently adopted a new system called Springboard.

Program adoption and the trouble with education.

To be fair, I don't know enough about Springboard to comment. Basically, it is a foundational component for the College Board's College Readiness System, offering a "proven Pre-AP program that increases participation and prepares a greater diversity of students for success in AP, college and beyond – without remediation." That sounds good, except some teachers have said they don't get it.

Since they don't get it, they don't know how to teach it. And worse or equally bad, my understanding is that the school district rushed the implementation of the new program without developing a transition stage between the last system they had adopted that promised to do all the same wondrous things but didn't.

The reason a transitional cycle would have been useful is because while a sixth grader would enter this new program at the opening, an eighth grader would have missed the first two years of the program and also have to unlearn any unique attributes of the last program. After all, most education programs pre-introduce specific concepts at different times and presuppose that others have already been introduced.

The people who make decisions for educators don't always understand this, but it's not rocket science. Gaming developers, social network developers, technology innovators, and smart organizations do this all the time. They assess what people know and then build products based on easing them into an upgrade system. Ergo, it's easier to introduce people to smart phones as opposed to smart paper.

But beyond new program adoption, there are some problems (and solutions) to the entire process — enough so that we can break them out. They apply to real world management as much as education.

Problem 1: Expectation. Never give people a set of standards without the benefit of what they could do to exceed those standards. While I have dozens of examples, this concept was one of several I applied while serving as president of a local IABC chapter a few years ago.

In addition to giving the board members a list of expectations, I included a second punch list of what they could do to exceed expectations. What happened? Nine of 10 exceeded expectations, with the comparative weak link on the board opting to meet the baseline requirements.

The lesson is simple. If you show people (students too) what they need to do to excel, they will excel. Otherwise, most of them will be complacent in meeting the standards provided (with few exceptions).

Problem 2: Evaluation. The concept of the A-F grading scale is largely pervasive in society, especially educational institutions. For most education systems, it replaces the E, S, N model used in elementary school, even though A-F is still implied with the introduction of the S+ (B) and S- (D).

As an instructor at a state university, I've always considered an A-F grading system less than useful beyond a benchmark to show progress up or down. Otherwise, it's somewhat misleading. For example, the so-called C performance that meets standards inside academics doesn't measure up in the workplace. Employees that maintain a C performance don't last long. It's hard to win with a 70-79 percent effort.

Problem 3: Education. Perhaps more troubling is that the A-F grading scale has another downside. While the school system recognizes 70-79 percent as meeting standards, the reality is that 70-79 percent could be indicative of how much of the material the student retained.

If they only retain 75 percent of the material, chances are that they will be starting at a deficit when they enter the next class. This is especially telling in foreign language courses. Students who score a C in their first year are more likely to go down than up in subsequent years because "meeting standards" does not provide a strong of enough base to move forward with confidence.

Problem 5: Enthusiasm. Confidence is critical to any education. Having taught for the better part of 12 years, I've seen this in my classes with some students. There are always some who are surprised by receiving benchmark papers that score considerably lower than they expect. It puts them at risk.

It takes a special effort to pull these students up after resetting their expectations. If I don't, some of them will purposely underperform or give up all together. At my son's age, this presents a challenging proposition as kids his age carry these feelings forward as opposed to confining them to one class.

As plenty of teachers and I have concurred, course subject is only 50 percent of the educational criteria. The other 50 percent is instilling a love for learning that transcends the subject. The last thing you want to teach a child is that all they need to achieve is a C or, worse, that a C is what they are supposed to achieve. Not giving students (or employees) the opportunity to excel by earning an A or B is the same as setting them up to fail.

The solutions for education start as early as possible and then pay it forward. 

As classes become more encapsulated in high school and college, I am confident my son will eventually learn that teachers tend to have a greater impact than the course material. Some teachers you survive. Other teachers inspire.

As long as he can discover his own love for learning, it will be easier to dismiss those poor misguided teachers that teach to standards without inspiring excellence rather than assign any misgivings to the subject. The same holds true for managers. While people don't always see the connection, they are often teachers too.

Wednesday, November 7

Exhibiting Symptoms: Why American Apparel Was Singled Out

Last week, American Apparel was singled out for creating a controversial advertising campaign designed to capitalize on Hurricane Sandy. It wasn't the only one to run ads or sales tied to the storm. Urban Outfitters, Even Singer22, Owner Operator, and others all had Sandy ads.

But American Apparel was the only one that really received public pushback. Its creative was singled out out as being especially insensitive and even repugnant. Why? CEO Dov Charney blames the blogosphere. Specifically, he said, "about 25 of them" that decided to blow it up.

"Each blogger or Twitterer eggs on the other, and it becomes a big deal," he told Bloomberg. "The media is also interested in getting a rise out of readers."

Right or wrong, Charney misses the point. American Apparel wasn't singled out because the bloggers and media have it in for the company that frequently creates its own controversy. American Apparel was singled out because it has afflicted itself with an increasingly chronic case of brand weakness.

The advertisement on its own is a non-entity.

American Apparel targeted nine stricken states with an advertisement featuring the headline: "In case you're bored during the storm, just Enter SANDYSALE at Checkout." The copy line isn't very avant-garde or even that creative. It's hardly as offensive as advocacy channels pretended last week. Charney is right he shouldn't lose sleep over the ad backlash.

What Charney ought to lose sleep over is over the long-term brand damage the company's publicity stunts and near-porn ad campaigns have done to the brand over the years. While people still buy the clothes, few respect the business. And this increasing lack of respect is starting to manifest itself into aversion.

If you want an analogy, think back to grade school. When the model student made an untimely joke, everybody still laughed. They might have even called it clever or cute. The class clown, on the other hand, was promptly sent to the dean's office. Nobody had to hear what they said because everything the class clown ever did or said was little more than another distraction. Just make it stop, classmates said.

Brands that are starved for attention flail about.

Companies with strong brands seldom struggle for it. They never need to rely on publicity stunts. Everyone gives them attention anyway. They don't even have to make news. They are the news.

Weak brands don't have that luxury. They try too hard and then become poster children for bad taste instead. It's a mistake that a manufacturer like American Apparel can't afford either. The ad that was intended to help boost sales in order to offset East Coast store closures did not help sales at all. If anything, it is likely the sales made them worse and could carry consequences for several months ahead.

Ironically, this is especially bad news for American Apparel because it had been enjoying a sales resurgence of sorts while being less controversial for the last few months. When American Apparel is quieter, people tend to remember one of its primary selling points: The manufacturer's clothing line is made in America. Made in America means something. "Sandy Sale" means something else.

Monday, November 5

Marketing Psychology Convergence: What's Wrong With It?

Larry Dignan, writing for ZDNet, was covering the Gartner Symposium when analyst Andrew Frank laid out a scenario where marketing, data and IT will come together so algorithms will find and use so-called influencers. It's part of what many marketers consider to be the holy grail of marketing.

In this case, Gartner believes that it will produce a new area of specialty that it has dubbed influence engineering. Let's hope not. While data, marketing, psychology, and analytics could use some convergence, the direction is continually plagued by an overemphasis on developing one-way communication that drives action through influential third parties. That tactic already has a name.

It's called propaganda and it's a big step backwards. 

The dream of some marketers is becoming increasingly simplified under the banner of influence. They want to be able to reach consumers through third-party influencers in order to make purchases.

The idea is so old, it was nearly perfected by the father of modern public relations. Edward Bernays was a pioneer in manipulation by fusing media and communication with crowd psychology and psychoanalysis. He frequently used the media as his influencer, given the power it had at the time.

It worked so well as a dubious proposition that future public relations practitioners would spend the next century attempting to distance themselves from the work and toward a more enlightened concept, Scott Cutlip, the father of public relations education, among them. Rather than resort to using big data to identify and manipulate, he forwarded the concept that big data was best used as a measure from which an organization could realign itself in the public interest.

As a result, influencers were just as likely to reinforce the organizational message and brand perception in following public opinion as they were to be coerced by manipulated influencers. In other words, the difference between the two is philosophical. Specifically, it is tied to who changes and by how much.

The difference between propaganda and public interest. 

It's plainly simple. One marketer hopes to listen, analyze, and then market an adjusted message in the hopes of changing behavior to preset measurable outcomes. The other listens, realigns (sometimes at the core product level), and then reinforces how they meet or exceed public interest and expectation.

The tendency for marketers to attempt the other approach — manipulation — frequently wins out. It's also the very reason that many marketers eventually need to use their crisis communication plan, assuming they have one. They overreach by trying to perfect an image that they cannot hope to meet.

That is not to say Gartner is all wrong in its thinking. It is right that the science of psychology can link data architects and marketers. But where it is off the mark is in thinking that chasing down patterns of influence is the right use or that optimizing pitches is the crux of a successful business.

It's very much the opposite. Some of the most successful businesses and agencies in the world operate on the principle that the better they understand the consumer, the better they can meet customer needs. In other words, you don't have to optimize a pitch when you've optimized the product or service offering. And the way to remember this critical fact is to always ask who changes and by how much.

Friday, November 2

Branding Loyalty: Big Brand Vs. Store Label

According to a study by the Integer Group® and M/A/R/C Research, 77 percent of general shoppers compare store brands to brand names. The downside? Most of them (90 percent) won't risk the change.

"Certain categories appear to be immune to the store-brand swap," said Craig Elston, senior vice president, IntegerTM.
"Categories that offer shoppers frequent innovations such as performance or variety, and categories where personal stakes are higher, are more difficult areas for private [store] label products to compete."

The study noted several exceptions across various demographics. About 76 percent of African-American shoppers (and 69 percent of shoppers, in general) will not swap laundry detergent. The brand is too important to them.

Health and beauty is also a category where shoppers prefer a brand name to a store label. Seventy-four percent of Hispanic shoppers (and 65 percent of general shoppers) will stick with their brand.

Trust and the perception of quality dominate decision making.

Part of the reason is associated with the perception of quality. As long as a brand can keep its brand promise, store labels will have a difficult time finding any leverage. In fact, trust accounts for 51 percent of a purchase decision, much higher than influencers, online reviews, or any other factor.

Store labels have an additional challenge too. Lower quality store labeled products have led to fewer store label shoppers than two years ago. And to compensate, retailers haven't done much more than building better brand identities (e.g., nicer packaging). They ought to focus on better products.

Case in point: When customers were asked if they thought the packaging had improved, 14 percent said that the labels do look better. However, even with better packaging, they prefer the brand they trust.

There is one exception highlighted by the study.

Sixty-eight percent of the shoppers prefer store label brands (generic) in the over-the-counter medicine category. But this unique outcome has much less to do with the identity and more to do with a cultural phenomenon tied to an external directive — insurance companies, health care providers, and some doctors have convinced consumers to look for generic first. Consumers have adopted this mindset across the board.

Without any external directive, implied or mandated, customers rely on brands that deliver on their brand promise. You can find the study here (which includes the common lead generation form).

While the study is interesting, it does miss some deeper issues related to consumer psychology as well as a holistic definition of brand loyalty in that it is much more than an identity. Ergo, the trust factor is directly tied to the relationship between the brand and the consumer. Identity only reinforces familiarity.

Where supermarkets and retailers attempting to introduce store labels frequently make a mistake is they try to entice consumers based on price points. With the exception of price point shoppers, most consumers are only motivated when their preferred brands break a promise (quality failure), do not meet a specific need, the product is temporarily unavailable and there urgency in finding a replacement, or there is an external driver (like health care policies).

If you focus too much on true price point consumers, marketers have to appreciate that they are only their customers for as long as the low price can be maintained. (Price point shoppers have no brand loyalty.)

Likewise, free samples aren't enough either. While customers will sometimes be receptive to a free sample, their purchase decision in the future will only be swayed when their preferred brand has been compromised by one of the four points mentioned above. In fact, many consumers accept free samples strictly to reinforce their brand loyalty to the preferred brand.
 

Blog Archive

Google+ Followers

by Rich Becker Copyright © 2010 Designed by Bie Blogger Template