Wednesday, January 30

Catching Catfish: Always Vet The Data

Some people never feel the need to be anonymous, online or off. But other people do, with their intent ranging from noble to malignant or their reasons ranging from convenience to pre-existing community standards (e.g., most people use creative avatars and punchy screen names). It's increasingly accepted.

So, it seems, is lying. As many as 25 percent of people admit they lie online (um, it's higher), citing security as the primary reason (um, it's not), and that doesn't account for the growing number of social network accounts that are partly or completely fabricated.

The phenomenon has grown up enough that it carries a better moniker than when Mackey or Chapel stole the show. Some people refer to fictitious and semi-fictitious accounts as catfish, named after the film-turned-television series. The series premiered on MTV in November 2012. It happens all the time.

The consequence of catfish in communication. 

Catfish are the bane of big data, enough so that some social networks are starting to do the unthinkable while ignoring the more obvious breaches like the one recently shared by Amy Vernon. In creating what is assumed to be a fictional account, someone hijacked Vernon's photos and started using them as his or her own under the name 'Melissa Dugan.'

And much like the new television series, Vernon's recent story sheds some light on the impact of catfish. There are personal and professional consequences. Fortunately, she is reasonably able to cope with it so far. But one can only imagine how long (if ever) Manti Te'o will need to fully reconcile the impact of having an online girlfriend — who died and was later resurrected — who was fabricated.

Much like the documentary Catfish, some people go so far as building an entire network of fabricated profiles to support their primary fabricated account, often grabbing up other people's pictures to do it. In the documentary, for example, an entire network of fake friends validated the fictitious account.

It's one step further than what married people who want an affair do on dating sites. Instead of making up one persona, catfish make up entire communities. What they do isn't limited to individual events.

Beyond individual masquerades and into public opinion. 

While some social media experts are quick to think about how fake accounts game popularity, some catfish are specifically set up to skew public opinion. Sometimes these efforts are harmless (such as casting a few extra votes for a favorite band on a survey). But others might not be harmless, given they are used to literally mask agendas by "washing" content through five or six profiles.

Three years ago, I tracked an unsupported news release that eventually became 'validated' by news. Public opinion catfish operate in much the same way, sharing volatile content across less-volatile social network accounts to create the illusion that whatever news is being shared is credible, sometimes rewritten to appear palatable. Or, in other cases, "washing" away geographical data is sometimes done to affect the perception of public policy (e.g., online politics frequently infuses outside interests).

Organizations are equally susceptible to such campaigns. It's not all that uncommon for some angry consumers to repost singular complaints across dozens of networks and review sites (and sometimes with more than one account) in order to disparage a product or service for whatever reason (justly or unjustly). There have even been cases where black hat competitors have driven up negatives, directly (fake reviews) and indirectly (propping up real negative reviews).

While there is a need to retain anonymity online (much like there is a need to preserve social satire), the rest of it — fraud and identity theft — is the leading unaddressed challenge within digital communication. And the best course of action today, although not foolproof, is to slow down, vet the data, and then vet the data again (even if you recognize the avatar, photo or logo as a trusted source).

Monday, January 28

Failing Forward: Debbie Millman At AIGA Las Vegas

Debbie Millman knows something about failure. Most people would never guess it nowadays.

Today, she is a writer, educator, artist, brand consultant, and radio show host. Specifically, she worked in design for over 25 years and currently serves as president of the design division at Sterling Brands, a leading brand consultancy formed in 1992 with offices in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati. She's held the position for 17 years. You know her work.

The consultancy’s client roster includes many international brands such as Procter & Gamble, NestlĂ©, Disney, Bayer, Google, and Visa. She has been personally responsible for working on the redesign of over 200 global brands.

While her position alone would be enough to scream success, she is also a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at, chair of the Masters In Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and hosts the award-winning weekly radio talk show “Design Matters With Debbie Millman.”

And yet, with all sincerity and despite the twinkle in her eye, Millman is among the first to say that her career never really took off until her 30s. Before that, she chalked up one failure after the next.

What does Millman think made all the difference? 

While Millman shared a top ten list of things she wish she knew before she started her career (a list that will be published on a transitionary AIGA Las Vegas site later this week), it took a question from the audience to pin it all down. When asked what was the catalyst for change, she settled on a single word after a long and thoughtful 30-second pause.


The single word answer almost fell flat on the 200 or so attendees at the Jan. 25 event hosted by AIGA Las Vegas, Las Vegas - Clark County Library District and Library Foundation. Enough so, that as a speaker and instructor, I wanted to jump in and provide a greater context for what she meant. I got it, even if not everyone did.

Millman didn't mean that everyone needed to find a psychologist or therapist to find success. But what most people need to do, especially students on the eve of graduating who can't see a clear vision into their future, is to change their thinking. The greatest road block for success begins with giving ourselves permission to succeed, something Millman had admitted that she never really did until later.

"I started to choose a path that was failure proof," Millman said. "If there is such a thing."

Over the next half-hour of her presentation, she outlined a career path that chronicled one failure after the next. The worst of it included becoming the object of ridicule on one of the first design blogs ever created. The blog, Speak Up, attracted dozens of comments from designers she admired in the field.

Her revision of the Burger King logo was met with considerable scorn. But it was the blog's comments that drove the discussion away from a single logo design and defining Millman as a talentless hack.

Millman might have been able to weather the criticism had she not just recently been more or less shackled by the leadership of AIGA as not being progressive enough as a designer to hold a position on their board. (This was also despite finally finding her dream position at Sterling Brands.) Basically, it meant to her that neither AIGA designers nor anti-AIGA designers would accept her or her work.

But that was a long time ago. What really changed it for Millman was her ability to stop avoiding failures and start embracing them. In fact, Millman says that if you don't make mistakes, you aren't taking enough risks. And taking risks — not avoiding failure — is a critical step toward finding success.

You can't be successful by trying to avoid failure.

Many of Millman's life lessons are much like that. While some people might chalk it up to common sense, the truth of it is that most people are afraid to take risks, find excuses not to make them, tend to quit too soon in order to prove success is elusive, and never give themselves permission to live the remarkable lives that they dream of, assuming they ever open themselves up to dream them. I couldn't agree more.

Therapy is the right answer, but it doesn't necessarily mean hiring a a therapist. It means accepting who you are and changing your outlook about what's possible, especially if you have built a lifetime of resistance. Most people need help to do it. And it just doesn't matter whether that help comes from a teacher, mentor, friend, colleague, ideology, faith, or whatever because it sounds simpler than it will be.

We have to be open to the possibilities, work hard in actively pursuing them, and never give up in the face of failure. As Millman eventually learned, it was her failures that often opened doors for success and not the other way around. Or, as she so eloquently put it, she failed her way to a successful life.

Friday, January 25

Storytelling: Where Communicators Get Miffed

Since scheduling pushed back one of my creative projects this month, I had this idea to recycle some fictional content as a holdover until I had time to finish up something freshly original. The initial thought seemed smart. The story hadn't appeared since it was part of a juried art exhibit years ago.

It took some time, but I found the story, polished it up, gave it another read, and then decided I hated it. But undeterred, I passed it over to an editor anyway. She wasn't keen on seeing it republished either, which was secretly the affirmation (or perhaps anti-affirmation) that I wanted. Weird, I know.

The story didn't fit with my most recent body of work, and I was very curious why that might be. She offered some suggestions, but none of them felt right until it hit me. The only feeling that lingered after the last sentence was somewhere between nothing and cynicism. Everything recent hits much harder.

Yeah, but what does this have to do with marketing and communication?

It has everything to do with it, which is why I'm starting to believe that everything most advertising, marketing, public relations, and communications teachers taught you was wrong. Almost all of them miss one of the most important ingredients in content, and it's the same one clients most often miss too.

It's not their fault. Rubrics have a stranglehold on education. In the communication field, one of the most popular is the ADIA model — Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action — or any of its variations (CAB, ADICA). It's a fine model, but it just isn't enough.

There is something else at work that writers have to pay attention to. It's the ability to move beyond the call to action and connect with an emotion, which is what creates the illusion that content is a fulfilling conversation. Think of it as an epilogue of sorts that creates an emotional connection (and I don't mean a like, follow, friend, or retweet) that people will later identify with the brand.

This is why tapping into people's imagination is so important. It's also why two perfectly structured advertisements that follow ADIA or some other format are not always equal. One might follow the structure, but it misses this mysterious ingredient. (Heineken's recent viral The Date spot misses it.)

The missing ingredient includes two parts. One is an emotion. The other is fulfillment. While the former can be anything, the latter needs to linger on a universal truth. Even if not everyone agrees, it feels right.

This feeling, that the author reinforced or opened our eyes to something new but patently obvious, is what makes some storytelling work so well. Mickey Gomez really gets it, even if she hasn't analyzed it. Geoff Livingston mostly gets it because it is innate in him. Jennifer Lawson gets it, even when her technical skill sometimes slips. I get it on good days. Most writers really don't get it.

Clients don't get it either, but for a different reason. Most of them are too focused on the experience they feel, and not the consumer. In other words, they look at the content and get excited because they think it represents them. But trust me on this: Consumers don't care how good an ad is supposed to make the brand look.

The one question you should always ask about your content. 

It's not always easy because, just like clients, writers sometimes become consumed by craft. They are either taken by the cleverness of it (as in advertising), the 'sales' pitch (as in public relations), or how pretty the prose is (as in authors). All of that might help, but none of it matters.

Storytellers and content creators have to look at this stuff objectively and then ask themselves what is the feeling a non-stakeholder will be left with at the end of the story. And then they have to consider whether or not that feeling aligns with the brand and creates a connection (ideally one associated with the brand). This is where content marketing and customer experience connect.

Ergo, content is an experience ... but only when it fits. It's the lingering emotion that really counts.

Wednesday, January 23

Researching Colleges: Future Students Prefer Digital Stealth

Forget interviews. Forget phone calls. Forget campus visits. College bound students are researching future colleges with the click of a mouse or tap on a mobile application. Like many organizations are learning, the next generation of college student is more inclined to shop a future college online.

Almost 55 percent of prospecting students are investigating colleges every day, using social media networks and search engines over print guidebooks and direct marketing products. Almost 25 percent applied stealth to their searches, making it more difficult for colleges to pin down prospect interest or profile them based on any discernible psychographics or demographics. You know what that means.

Don't blink because your customer is invisible.

According to a new study conducted by Lipman Hearne, a national marketing and communications firm, and, a college search website, future students are researching schools online as early as their sophomore year in high school. And they are looking for very specific information, along with passive analysis, to determine what institutions might be a good fit for their college years.

1. Scholarship and financial aid packages.
2. Reputation in a major field of interest.
3. Affordable tuition and fees.
4. Strong academic reputation.
5. Job assistance after graduation.

In addition to prioritizing preferences, the report focuses in on prospect communication preference, noting that nearly half had visited a college's website on a mobile device (45 percent) and one in ten had downloaded an app from a college on a mobile device. What students are less interested in are text messages, unless they have an expressed interest in the school.

Students also turn to social networks as part of their research (85 percent reported having at least one social network account). And although most say that social media does not influence their decision, students frequently look for status updates, offerings, and even invitations. But what most won't do is use this information to start a conversation, poll, or ask friends for opinions on their school choices.

There is also some indication that colleges are over-marketing to students via email. The average prospect reported receiving as many as five emails from colleges that they have reached out to for information. The communication is intrusive enough that many have set a dedicated email specifically for college information. About 71 percent check this separate email account daily.

Not surprisingly (although surprising to some), more than one in three graduating high school seniors indicated that advertising influenced their application decision or influenced their enrollment decision. Students also identified online banner ads as more effective and easier to recall than other forms of advertising. Both of these statistics represent a dramatic shift in online behavior, which has previously suggested that social media is more influential than advertising. This might not be true in the future.

The Lipman Hearne study is available for a free download, but requires the typical form fill. It included more than 11,000 students as part of its survey process. It should also be noted that the research was conducted online, which sometimes skews data toward the medium where the survey was taken.

Looking beyond college bound applications and learning about consumers. 

While the study was conducted to better understand stealth applicants — students who investigate schools before and after applying to the school — it suggests that the next generation of consumers is already shifting their mindset. Specifically, more customers watch and listen to organizations without identifying themselves as potential customers. In essence, they are passive in their research.

Passive online participants (voyeurs) still represent a majority of online participation, even if many social media experts skew toward the more talkative and visibly engaged customers. But there is one difference between the voyeurs of the past and the voyeurs of the future. The voyeurs of the past were quiet because they weren't comfortable with the new tools. The voyeurs of the future know the tools and purposefully remain unengaged to avoid intrusive marketing efforts like emails and phone calls.

This could be a significant find because it seems that while the next generation of customer may be more reliant on digital research, they are also interested in remaining invisible to big data by giving off the appearance of disengagement. Note to researchers: Focus groups still require different formats.

Monday, January 21

Avoiding Stereotypes: The Color Of Ideology

No one really knows what Martin Luther King, Jr. would have thought had he lived to see the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (Aug. 28, 1963). On one hand, Americans had not only elected but re-elected the first African-American President. On the other, it has created one of the most divisive socio-economic-political climates since President Abraham Lincoln.

I, for one, would like to think he would stand by the lines delivered in the I Have A Dream speech, holding firm to his conviction that people not be judged except by the content of their character. For although racism has largely been abolished in the hearts and minds of a majority, the propensity of humankind to divide has reached a crescendo on dozens of other fronts, ranging from the values people hold to the rights they are willing to defend as part of the definition of freedom.

Whereas in the era of Martin Luther King, Jr., people were unjustly and commonly segregated by the color of their skin, hate speech and stereotypes have found a new home that often ignores the color of our skin and ravishes us instead for religious views, political leanings, and urban-rural localities. While few people would defend hate speech aimed at racial heritage and cultural identity, it has somehow become accepted to characterize some religions as deserving censor, some political parties as callous, gun owners as redneck bigots, and even whether they take notes on a notepad or laptop. And today, rather than enacting segregation in schools, most of it takes place in news outlets and social networks.

So let's be clear. Stereotypes are ignorant, regardless of righteousness. 

A stereotype is a thought about a specific group of individuals that is used to forward the belief that a single commonality about that group can accurately define all characteristics about that group, usually intended to cause others to emotionally react to the naming of the group with good or bad prejudice.

In the past, it was most commonly associated with heritage. Today, it's most commonly associated with ideology and identity. But what hasn't changed is: they are almost always wrong, especially when they are used to dehumanize people; they are exceptionally damaging, especially if we accept derogatory stereotypes that other people assign us; and they are hardwired into our brains, which means we have to be ever vigilant in dismantling almost all of them.

Some people are surprised anytime it is suggested that we are hardwired to invent stereotypes; the truth to it is scientific. Our brains invent stereotypes in order to make our world less cognitively demanding. It's all tied to cognitive psychology, which was always my favorite sub-discipline of psychology (and one of the most useful for communicators and marketers).

Cognitive psychology delves into how people perceive, remember, think, speak, and solve problems. And one of the mental processes is how we categorize and compartmentalize information. For example, when we learn fire is hot, we categorize it as something that can burn us. Later, when we learn an oven or stovetop can be hot, we might put it into the same category. We need it to survive.

But then something happens sometime between junior high school and high school. Our cognitive processes begin to take on more abstract forms as we begin to define our world based on arduous notions not much better than The Breakfast Club, a film about five high school stereotypes — jock, geek, stoner, outcast, and socialite — who find temporary common ground around being detainees.

Unfortunately, few people ever really evolve from these baseless social roles. They simply trade them in for new ones, making the world easier to understand even if this understanding is flawed. Worse, we sometimes compound the problem by pursuing the characteristics of stereotypes that we want to belong too, making them seem all the more valid, and creating campaigns to prove they are true and desirable.

The evolution of cognitive thinking relies on individual character. 

There is one simple reason that I tend to attract diversity among friends and associates. Much like their heritage, their ideologies mean less to me than how they behave and treat others, especially those they seem ideologically opposed to across any number of socio-economic-political issues.

And for that, I grant them equal tolerance even as we disagree, especially if we can maintain a relationship without having to dress up in a costume and, most assuredly, if we can agree not to censor or subjugate other people's rights, property, and values. It's called respect. It's called refusing to drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred. It's called character, built on trust and understanding that all men and women are created equal without being forced to carry the loadstones of ancestry and stereotype.

That's my dream. And while I could be wrong, I would like to think it was Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream too — that the flaws of one character within a thinly connected group ought not be used as a weapon to vilify each and every perceived associate. This is, after all, America, a place where we are supposed to be uniquely accountable to our own behaviors and actions and deserve to be judged according to our character and not the behaviors or actions that people attempt to assign us.

That said, it is my dream that people think twice before embracing hate speech and stereotypes, carelessly sharing and spreading such messages across their social connections without any thought of the disparagement they might cause others because underneath it all, no matter how we divide people, we really are all brothers and sisters of the human race. And so, in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. day, good night and good luck.

Friday, January 18

Improving Press Releases: A Two-Part Social Test

People tend to give press releases plenty of flack. But in many cases, the problem isn't the tool but the practitioner who created it. If you want better release performance, start with the source — the author.

I'm not suggesting that public relations practitioners need to be canned. What I am suggesting is that public relations professionals test themselves by taking advantage of other in-house professionals and social media to see just how great (or not great) their press release (or social media release) crafting skills might be.

Pass a press release draft to a colleague, but not to edit. 

Rather than passing the press release to someone to edit, ask them to write a news story from the release as if they were a journalist working for whatever new niche the story is intended. The public relations professional might even be able to test themselves, assuming they're objective enough to do it.

This process will immediately reveal any flaws in the press release before it ever sees the newswire. It might even produce some new ideas for better leads, hooks, or angles that no one ever thought up.

1. Did the release pass the news test?
2. Did it offer enough hooks to inspire different angles?
3. Did the person acting as a journalist have to ask follow up questions?
4. Did the quotes stand out enough to be used or were they too canned and cut?
5. How hard did the person have to work to ferret out any story from the content?
6. Did the story turn out interesting enough to read or was it as dry as what was supplied?

Always keep in mind that the measure of a press release is not whether or not it will run as written. On the contrary, it needs to be written so that any journalist can immediately see the news value in it and feel confident that they can put their own spin on the story. Ideally, it contains the news they don't know.

Publish the story someplace like a blog; give it a social media test.

Make no mistake, journalists are under increasing pressure to prove their content is being read. And right or wrong (mostly wrong), more publishers are tracking how many hits, shares, and time on a story to determine whether or not people are interested in the content. (This data is then turned into ad sales.)

The only way to really know is to publish the potential content yourself. Publishing the story (not the release) on an intranet, website, or blog could provide some indication of its potential success. And in this case, the objective doesn't have to be viral as much as benchmarked for success.

1. Did the story attract more or less interest from intended readers?
2. How long did the average reader stay on the story page?
3. Was any of the content shared across social networks?
4. How did it compare to stories already published across the industry?
5. Was any of the content recycled or used for other story purposes?
6. Were there any patterns in terms of reader demographics or special interests?

The bottom line is that just like public relations pros ought to challenge themselves to find newsworthy content on the inside, journalists are challenging themselves to find newsworthy content on the outside. What they don't have is unlimited time. As newspapers and publications have scaled back on staff, the general function of a news release ought to make it easier, not harder, to get the job done.

Testing the potential of the news story that press release, internally and/or externally, can provide some insights to ensure you're on the right track. In fact, even if the stories are only tested internally (especially useful for larger companies), readership patterns will likely emerge. Some stories will sink, others will win interest. But more importantly, it will help improve the story catalyst — a press release that editors know has the potential to attract some interest and traffic to their publication and reporters know will make their jobs a little easier and, perhaps, more interesting.

Wednesday, January 16

Advertising Obesity: Coca-Cola Has The Skinny

Imagine how ridiculous it would have been for cigarette companies to run advertisements in the 1990s attempting to offset smoking with a few quick hits on an oxygen tank. And then consider the impenitence of the latest Coca-Cola advertisement that attempts to cure obesity by suggesting you can still have a Coke and smile, provided you take a few quick laps around the block.
The two-minute commercial created by Coca-Cola is a nightmare. At best, it's a two-minute segment that highlights how Coca-Cola has worked diligently to undo the damage that drove its profit margin.

The spot touts how the company has reduced the average calories per serving of its beverage by 22 percent (mostly by divesting into non-soft drinks like juice and water), shrunk serving sizes, placed calorie counts on the front of containers, reduced beverage calories in schools by 90 percent (mostly by dropping soft drinks from the offering), developed a strategic philanthropy plan that helps fund physical fitness programs for young people, and invested in innovative sciences to create new sweeteners.

The commercial wraps this all up by reminding everyone they get calories from other places beyond their favorite fizzy elixirs — which means that you should feel guilt about those extra inches around your waistline. Or, in other words, if overweight people would just work out, then companies like Coca-Cola wouldn't be thrown under the bus by New York nanny Bloomberg. Here it is...

This commercial is one of the biggest anti-brand statements ever put out by Coca-Cola. It literally strips away any ounce of happiness that once made its flagship product an undisputed brand champ and replaces it with a public relations spin that doesn't work. It admits guilt and attempts to share some of it.

The nine rules of advertising needs another rule. Be the real thing, only.

There is something seriously wrong with this country, and corporate marketers aren't making it better. Too many companies fall prey to the nation's escalating overindulgence in national guilt and actually feed it with apologetic advertising. Coca-Cola isn't the only one, but it does represent a trend.

If you have looked at messaging trends today, you will discover that people ought to feel guilty if they cannot sustain themselves OR become too successful. People ought to feel guilty if they are too skinny OR too heavy. People ought to feel guilty if they aren't willing to help people in need by raising taxes OR if they vote for spending that increases the national debt. People ought to feel guilty if they are too pious to pop a can of Coke OR if they drink more than a thumbnail of the bubbly caramel substance.

There is no win. This is a country that not only feels guilty about everything but makes demands that everyone who doesn't feel equally miserable receive punishments. This weird guilt sickness has become so prevalent in our society, people don't even feel guilty for what they do, they feel guilty about what other people do. National obesity is but one example, and it's a shame to see one of the few holdout companies fall for it.

The new two-minute spot marks the end of an era.

Coca-Cola doesn't have anything to apologize for. Its flagship product is a surgary fizzy drink that many people enjoy. Almost all of them received the memo that too much of a good thing is bad thing, which is why drinking a 12-pack isn't such a good idea. And yet, more and more people feel so incredibly guilty about those who are weak willed that they demand we legislate how much soft drink everyone can purchase and consume regardless of their own ability to moderate.

Coca-Cola isn't the problem. The lack of willpower of some and guilt of many is the problem. 

And apparently, this lack of willpower and inflated sense of guilt is beginning to rub off on advertisers too. They sell products of indulgence and then feel guilty about it when the public falls out of love with them because somebody overindulged. At the same time, they don't want to accept responsibility for it so the consumer has to share in it.

All of this misses the point. The real magic of Coca-Cola as a product is that for five to 30 seconds a swig, whomever is drinking it can forget about their troubles and briefly enjoy a taste bud tickle followed up by a caffeine buzz. What's wrong with that? Product promise. Product delivered.

This new spot, on the other hand, is nothing more than a buzz kill because it reminds the consumer that every 5- to 30-second swig carries consequences not only for them, but also for the nation. Worse, they cannot even save themselves or anybody else from this indulgence because anything else they enjoy with calories is evil too, along with a lifestyle that includes watching too much television news that is so depressing that they can't possibly motivate themselves off the couch. I dunno about you, but this realization kind of kills any warm and fuzzy feeling I might had about a brand and that's ironic.

It's ironic because I don't drink Coca-Cola unless it is mixed up in the occasional stiff drink, but I have always felt good about the brand. It's very American, representative of a small indulgence that is within easy reach of anyone. How dour life would be without it. How dour it's becoming with all this guilt.

Wing nut advocacy campaigns aren't the only communication programs that can shape the nation. Companies can help shape them too. Their primary responsibility is to deliver a brand promise and, assuming they do that well, then enjoy financial success and make contributions to communities in the form of taxes, employment, investment returns, and charitable contributions (maybe even to curb obesity) so that other people don't have to pay as much in taxes. Anything else could fall flat.

Monday, January 14

Burping Content: It's Not A Social Media Strategy

As content marketing remains a priority for many marketing managers this year, more people have been keen to make the case that more posts means more traffic. Why not? Frequency is an easy argument to make.

More content means more leads. More content means a longer tail. More content means more to share on social networks. More site traffic means more sales. Even as HubSpot points out, businesses that post 20 times a month generate five times more traffic and four times more leads than those that only post a few times a month.

See that? Frequency is the easiest case to make about content marketing. Everybody ought to make more of whatever.

Except, burping out more content isn't a strategy. 

More doesn't always mean more. Sometimes more can help, but frequency is dependent on variables that are harder to pin down. It depends on who or whom is providing the more. It depends on what kind of more you want to provide. It depends on whether or not the content is sustainable or finite. It depends on your business objective beyond traffic and popularity.

Who will be providing more content? A single content creator ratcheting up from one post a week to five posts a week might pick up more traffic or, depending on the value of the content, could oversaturate the audience. For the creators specifically, it could also lead to burnout, writing posts with a diminishing value proposition as objectives shift from valuable to just getting something up.

The reality is that too much of one voice, especially if it wears a brand mask, can become a bit boorish. People appreciate diversity, which is how Facebook maintains a top traffic spot. Millions of people provide the content (with some content providers more appreciated than others). Imagine what it might be like if all the content was generated by Zuckerberg. Right. Crickets.

The takeaway? Every content creator has a unique carrying capacity, dependent on topic, content, ability, and presence. More content might mean more authors, but only if they can match the spirit of the niche publication. Too much deviation can carry consequences much like not enough diversity.

What kind of content will it be? One of the most written about YouTube success stories is Will It Blend? by Blendtec. It is referenced so often that doing so nowadays has almost become cliche.

However, Will It Blend? by Blendtec is worth mentioning here because more content wouldn't have helped. If it had became a daily episode, two things might have happened. The best of its content would have been buried before it had a chance to spread. And second, it could have potentially destroyed any anticipation people felt for the next installment. So, for the most part, once a month seems about right for Blendtec, even if some months never cross the million mark.

The takeaway? Some companies undo their own their impact by swinging wildly between market saturation and market starvation. But content marketing isn't suited to sprints. It's more like a marathon, with content being delivered consistently with purpose.

How consistently sustainable is the topic? When you look at website like TripAdvisor, which has become a top destination research site, content sustainability might be defined as the number of destinations that exist in the world, continually refreshed by the diverse perspectives from authors who visit and report on these destinations based on their popularity. Ergo, a hotdog stand in Nebraska is likely to receive fewer updates than a hotel in San Francisco.

So why would it be any different for the respective companies? If a hotdog stand in Nebraska and a hotel in San Francisco both had blogs, chances are that the hotel will generate more content than the hotdog stand. Sure, there are some exceptions. If the hotdog stand was managed by the Dalai Lama, it could sustain considerably more content. But then again, I doubt the content would be about hotdogs.

The takeaway? Consider sustainability based on how often there will be new content to share, which will usually be driven by how often there is something new to report within the context of the site. The concept harkens back to days when public relations firms used to promise a certain number of releases every month without ever asking the company if it could sustain that many newsworthy prospects per month. Many cannot, unless they happen to have a public relations pro digging for it.

What is the business objective beyond sales? As content marketing becomes important to marketers, marketers have to remember that content marketing is the means to an end and not an end to the means. The goal of content marketing isn't to make a website the most visited space on the Internet unless the business is a website (and even that might depend on what kind of business it is and what industry it operates in). So what is the end?

It really depends on the organization's objectives and communication plan, especially long term. While Apple always makes for an interesting example around innovation, an even better fit here would be the rock band Rush. It sounds silly, but the band isn't very different from a business.

Specifically, had Rush employed the same tactics that many social media experts do today, it would have debuted with a disco album in 1974 and not the blues-infused heavy metal that eventually evolved into progressive rock (with lyrics that draw heavily upon science fiction, fantasy, and philosophy). Of course, if they had done disco, it seems wildly unlikely that these invulnerable outsiders would have eventually sold the third-most number of albums in history, third behind The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

The takeaway? Rush stuck to its objective to make a certain kind of music while the rest of the world thrived and died by whatever trends seemed successful for the moment. The same thing happens within the rapidly evolving space of social media. Many people and companies thrive and die with whatever seems popular at the moment, only to be forgotten about the following year. Never change your strategy for something as fickle as popularity.

Friday, January 11

Developing A Professional Image: Experimental Class Ahead

A few months ago, I found myself in a semi-heated discussion with an image consultant (a.k.a. personal branding guru). There isn't any transcript of the conversation because it didn't happen online. It happened offline, where many conversations about what I write here sometimes occur.

The catalyst for the call was a post — Branding: Why I Stopped Worrying About Being Batman — and why I did such a great disservice the emergent field of image consulting and personal branding. The entire post, she said, was borderline hypocritical given that I had once hired an image consultant.

Out of context, she had a point. Within context, not so much.

I hired an image consultant a few years ago because I knew there is some truth to Color Seasons. Different skin colors and complexions look better with different colors and horrendous with others. And while I know a few things about design and fashion, I had no clue what colors worked for me.

So, I found someone better at this stuff than me to help figure it out. And for several hours, she held up a hundred colors in order to give me a palette to test against the next time I went shopping, which is pretty rare (and half the time I forget the palette anyway). But I drew the line on everything else.

The reason is simple enough. I have a difficult time reconciling the dress for success concept of personal branding, especially as it has permeated social networks with some personal branding folks telling people that their social network pics provide the first impression of who you are to the world.

This worry over first impressions doesn't end with fashion. It seems to encompass everything: what we write, like, share, read, see, comment about, respond to, how we respond, when we respond, and a long list of more indicators online and offline. It's not much different than those "tells" people warn you about — offline tips like shining your shoes or only salting food after you taste it.

Sure, I suppose I could argue that some personal branding concepts work to some degree, but one has to be careful. Not all, but many personal branding consultants forget that real "branding" is not about style. It's about substance. It's about self-awareness. It's about authenticity. And it's about you.

I believe this so strongly that when the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, asked if I could teach an experimental seminar that could help people with their professional development in order to gain a competitive advantage in the job market (or as account executives and salespeople), I said absolutely.

Projecting A Professional Image at the University Of Nevada, Las Vegas. 

The 3-hour class will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Jan. 31. The focus is on developing an authentic professional image for a competitive job market and economic marketplace, including the challenge that many people have with reconciling their so-called personal and professional separations, online, offline, wherever. Anyone attending can expect something different than the standard fare.

You see, it seems to me that you can wrap up any product in fancy packaging, but that doesn't make it effective in the environment where it will be used. This is the cornerstone of my Fragile Brand Theory, which suggests that brand failures or reputation crashes do not happen because of the nature of people, places, or things. They happen because persons, places, or things pretend to be something else.

This is why some executives give speeches wearing nothing more than pajamas and others put on expensive suits for the most casual of meetings. The notion that we must dress for success is somewhat of a misnomer. It's the substance, not the style, that drives reputation. Style merely helps convey it.

The class will help sort it out, including that style doesn't just say something about an individual. It says something about how we hope to connect with the anticipated audience. Ergo, construction workers tend to clam up on a construction site if you try to interview them in a suit and wedding guests would find someone wearing pajamas a bit too disruptive for an event celebrating someone else.

Right. Canned packaging disrupts as much as looking unkept. So this class starts where it counts.

• How an authentic professional image differs from personal branding
• How to develop messages that can set yourself apart from competitors
• How to maintain authenticity and empathy in differing environments
• How to reconcile who you are on social networks, without faking it
• How to feel good about who you are and add substance to the offering

Registration for the experimental class can be found here. I call it experimental because this one-time session will be used to gauge interest in a future 3-part workshop, with take home assignments and exercises. After the class concludes, at least one presentation deck will be published within a post.

Wednesday, January 9

Reporting Responsibly: The Psychology Of Rights

Sometime in the 1990s, I signed on to pen a few articles for the most aggressive First Amendment advocacy magazine I've ever read. The content was rough enough that I still sometimes question my decision to participate. I have and had mixed feelings for a couple of the columns I wrote, although they were nothing compared to some of material submitted by others. But that is why I wrote them.

I was challenging my own convictions. I was contributing to a publication Stephen King supported, which was how I discovered it. I had also just recently participated in a win the ACLU had over the old America Online's TOS, which included an aggressive censorship policy against its members.

After a couple of issues, I dropped any future assignments, but it wasn't the limits of the First Amendment that shook me off. The editor/publisher and I had a falling out despite our developing friendship. The argument that did it was over the Second Amendment. I couldn't fathom that a publisher might hold one inalienable right up high but dismiss another outright.

The lack of responsibility and hypocrisy of the Journal News. 

This previous experience was one of the first things that came to mind when I read about the Journal News publishing a map that included the names and addresses of almost 34,000 gun owners. The story, which began two weeks ago, has since escalated. In a case of tit-for-tat, someone decided to publish the names and addresses of the reporters and editors who work there.

Some of the editors are now unhappy and even frightened for themselves and their families. The newspaper has even reported that someone sent bags of white power to their offices, reminiscent of the terrorist scares several years ago. The paper's publisher, Janet Hasson, has hired armed guards for the offices.

Assuming the white powder reports are true, that is unquestionably over the line. But the rest of it, the publishing of names and addresses of reporters and editors, was fair. The paper's own blatant disregard for the responsibility that comes with the freedom of the press wasn't well thought out. The fear they feel isn't much different than the fear they instilled in gun owners and non-gun owners alike.

Perhaps one of my colleagues said it best, pointing out that at least some of those people on the list might be stalker victims or domestic violence victims, only purchasing a gun out of personal necessity. Or maybe there is even more to consider. Publishing the names of gun owners also gives criminals a potential list of gun-owning targets (or non-gun owning targets), gives neighbors a reason to be suspicious, frightens concerned seniors, gives prisoners the names and addresses of corrections officers and police officers, and invites everybody into everybody's personal affairs.

Incidentally, the map isn't even accurate. Many people listed have since moved or are deceased, making the map nothing more than an attempt to justify some notion that neighbors have a right to know who owns a gun or guns — an argument that suggests the public has a right to know which neighbors are journalists, people inclined to transform private lives into public affairs. It's all sad and silly.

The psychology of rights and press ethics.

Personally, it seems to me that there is a maturity in appreciating that the Bill Of Rights was included in the U.S. Constitution not because these rights were convenient or safe or popular. The Bill Of Rights are inalienable rights, meaning that they supersede the government's ability to grant them. They came about because it was the other way around. The citizens who made this government said they wouldn't give these rights up to the government.

Moreover, as inalienable rights, the expressed concept is that such freedoms are not granted by a majority at their privilege to a minority but rather owned and preserved equally by majorities and minorities alike, even when that minority consists of a single individual. In other words, we don't get to pick and choose which inalienable rights we want without the consequence of losing all of them.

That said, the Journal News might have been well within its rights to publish the map, but it doesn't excuse a blatant disregard for responsible news reporting. The same can be said for those who published the names and addresses of reporters and editors in an era where publishing is cheap and relatively easy, but I can't blame them. Equal opportunity sometimes breeds equal jeopardy.

What I do wish is that both publishers would have heard one of my former media professors challenge the ethical vs. free vs. responsibility perceptive of a free press in my media law class. He didn't speak about guns. Instead, he talked about the unwillingness of most newspapers and media outlets to publish the names of rape victims under the age of 18.

He proved his point by escalating the news value of the story, painting the progression that an editor might not publish the name of a 14-year-old victim, but would have a harder time not publishing her name if she was the daughter of a mayor, or if the mayor was responsible, or if other publications do. As he progressed, the hands of those who would not publish the name fell away with shattered convictions.

No, what the the Journal News did is not an exercise of two rights rubbing up against each other, creating the illusion that we have to make a choice. It is something much simpler. It is having the common sense to know that just because you can publish something, doesn't mean you have to publish it (or create laws to censor it). And maybe that is what the discussion ought to be about.

Monday, January 7

Overstating: Six Myths PR Brings To Social

As someone who works with one foot in public relations and the other in marketing/advertising (among others), I'm never surprised but always perplexed when one side attempts to trample the other. As communicators, we ought to be working toward integration while others don't think so.

Front and center on PR Daily was a post that screamed "6 Reasons PR Pros Should Manage Social Media." (Hat tip: Shelly Kramer. See her take on it here.) The article was written to prop up another article that carried much the same sentiment. Reading the original, however, was out of the question. The link was broken. Accuracy be damned.

Before tackling the six reasons, I ought to preface my position. Nobody owns social. In fact, I'm very much inclined to believe that anybody who claims "ownership" over the space demonstrates that they don't know much about it. Social media is an environment, one which not only helps integrate communication but will also increasingly converge with the real world. How can anyone own that?

Why Six Reasons For PR Pros To Own Social Are Really Six PR Myths.

1. Are PR Pros Experienced Storytellers? The claim is made that public relations professionals are experienced storytellers, mostly because many public relations professionals are former journalists. As experienced storytellers, they are naturally suited to manage social media.

This is a myth, four times over. The reality is that almost everyone in a communication-related field is an experienced storyteller, not just public relations professionals (and many public relations professionals are not great storytellers, which is why they pitch people who are). The only difference between these various storytellers is the medium in which they communicate and the creative restraints to which they are subjected.

Personally, I'm unconvinced that someone needs to be in a communication-related field to be a good storyteller or, for that matter, that all storytellers make good managers. Likewise, I don't believe there has ever been a study that proves 50 percent plus one of public relations professionals are former journalists, which even the public relations industry finds difficult to reconcile.

2. Are PR Pros Expert Communicators? The assertion is made that writing skills are essential to social media, which public relations professionals (as former journalists) possess.

Writing skills are essential to any position, but few people possess them. Not everyone in public relations (and maybe not many in public relations) are good writers. As evidence, visit PR Newswire. There you will find some of the worst abuses of the written language as supplied by the PR field.

3. Are PR Pros Are Always Relevant? The position is taken that public relations professionals are experienced in creating content relevant to a specific audience, which is needed for social media.

Most communicators, whether they are copywriters or marketers, are equally versed in demographics and psychographics. Many of them pore over data and establish connections with the same vigor. Unfortunately, for many public relations professionals, relevance is defined by whatever they think is important, which is why the field is sometimes subjected to public floggings.

More importantly, even if relevance can be important to social media, the concept of a specific audience is very different in the space. Social media simultaneously operates on a one-to-one, one-to-many and one-to-all scale, which is very different from the public relations world view of "publics."

4. Are PR Pros The Best Relationship Builders? The contention is made that public relations has always been better at relationship building and social media is all about relationships.

While social media is sometimes about relationships, it doesn't have to be. Many connections that people make online are relatively thin and a good majority of them occur based not the individual relationship between the social media manager and an individual, but the relationship between the individual and whomever pointed them toward some content. It's relatively complicated.

5. Do PR Pros Know Crisis Communication? The claim is made that public relations professionals are trained in crisis communication and issues management and are therefore equipped to handle things when something goes wrong.

There are scores of examples that both prove and disprove the claim. The truth is that most public relations professionals follow a standard step-by-step plan, which is better than nothing but not nearly enough. Risk management expert Dr. Thomas Kaiser said as much a few months ago. Crisis management and mediation require more than PR, especially as it relates to disaster planning.

Sure, some understanding of crisis communication is always a plus for anyone in social media. However, it's equally feasible for someone else to draft the crisis communication plan for a social media manager to follow in the event of an emergency. Every employee, not just those assigned to social media, needs to know about it too.

6. Do PR Pros Seek More Feedback? The claim is made that public relations has been charged with gathering feedback, but now they have the advantage of social media to collect and cull data 24-7.

Big data is certainly an evolving trend, but I think anyone would be hard pressed to prove that public relations has cornered the market. Marketers, researchers, and customer service managers have been working in the feedback arena too.

What is more frightening about this point is that the author went so far as to suggest that surveys and focus groups are largely absolute because of social media. It's not true. In order to make sense of big data, verification and additional insights are becoming more important, not less. It's all part of the changes and challenges sweeping communication today. Anyone in public relations should know it.

The net conclusion is pretty simple. Do you think public relations professionals are the right fit for social media? Yes, but not more or less than anybody in communication (or anybody outside of communication). And no. In some cases, they might not be the right fit at all.

What social media really needs is to be placed in a retrofitted and flexible communication model, with strategic planning at its core and tactical planning that can be executed across online and physical environments in such a way that people feel individually connected to a two-way communication stream that simultaneously reaches specific people and the public as a whole AND inspires internal spokespeople and brand loyalists to support it. (Yes, I purposely made that a long sentence.)

So is the person best equipped to head this up a public relations professional? I don't care. I'd be satisfied with whomever can get the job done and most executives would too. If that means the custodian who managed to create a 100,000 strong collation of good housewives and househusbands, so be it.

Why? Not a single skill set used as a reason for public relations to own social media is exclusive to public relations as a whole. Mostly, they are skill sets that come with individuals, not professions. And if someone happens to lack one of them, it's easy enough to enroll them in a class or two. What might be harder to teach, which is what the story seemed to lack, is empathy. You have to relate to people.

Friday, January 4

Advertising: It's An Invitation To Imagine

Expect to see plenty of communication foreshadows for the year ahead in January, but be wary of the ones that attempt to redefine terms. Advertising has an especially big target on its back this year, with some people calling it content, some people calling it mobile, and some people calling it a total failure. None of this is really new.

Advertising is an industry that has been driven by persuasion, awareness, branding, sales, and few dozen other terms since the 1950s. None of these starting points are wrong, per se. Advertising can be driven by all of these things, but ideally considers everything at once, within the context of a conversation.

“Copy is a direct conversation with the consumer." — Shirley Polykoff

Shirley Polykoff, who was the first woman copywriter for Foote, Cone & Belding, called it right in the 1950s and she is still right today. She based her career on it, with Clairol being her biggest success.

Did her advertisements sell too? Yes. She moved the hair color category from $25 million to $200 million. Did her advertisements persuade? Yes. She expanded the market from 7 percent of all women to 50 percent of all women in six years. Did she help the Clairol brand? Yes. It captured 50 percent of the market share, making it the clear leader in cosmetics for decades. She also told a story that sparked conversations, originally among housewives who wanted more glamour and independence.

Advertising was (and still is) a conversation, one that presents the possibilities. 

What some people squabble about today is what form that conversation should take, with most people leaning toward content marketing as a means to deliver it. I agree to a degree, meaning that I agree content marketing is where many people will set their sights. But I also temper the conclusion because if Polykoff wasn't engaged in content marketing, then what was she engaged in? Exactly.

Advertising isn't moving forward, it's moving backward with a few bright bulbs positioning themselves as the frontrunners of an old idea, repackaged. There is nothing really wrong with that. The circular nature of culture demands a certain degree repetition. And I can't fault people for claiming it's new.

But what I can do is help even smarter people understand why we moved away from conversation in the first place. Mostly, it had to do with the rapid advancements in visual communication — special effects and unrestrained cleverness — that became the conversation and made the brand promise and product possibilities secondary to the packaging.

The only problem with that stylish but less substantive trend, of course, was that social media amplified buyer's remorse by giving it a potential reach that could eclipse a media buy. Ergo, if a story leads someone to a conclusion that differs from the one they expect, then they tend to get pissed off.

Content marketing merely rolls the story telling back where it belongs. In today's world, Polykoff would still be revered a shining star in advertising because the content would remain the same while taking advantage of a better delivery system. Blondes, as her advertisements suggested, would still have more fun.

The only difference is that in today's communication environment, she could have had a platform to tell their stories along with the one that sparked their imaginations in the first place. Does that make sense?

Advertising is an invitation to consider an imaginary spark that allows people to explore the possibilities of something better, ideally defined as the product or service that can deliver it. Whether that means visual, audio, copy, online, offline,  or any combination is merely a matter of what best showcases the product (in the medium it is being presented in) and budgetary constraint. And everything else?

You are probably better suited to fill in the blank, especially as you review any campaigns this year.

Wednesday, January 2

Trending 2013: The Year Of Convergence

When people used to bandy about the term "convergence" as it related to media, they were mostly talking about broadcast and broadband. But nowadays, spend even a few seconds searching the net and you'll see that convergence in this niche has already happened. Almost anything and everything you can find on cable television has a connection to a computer screen, desktop or mobile device.

Sure, some organizations have a better handle on it than others, but digital is digital. The only barriers between television and broadband are the ones we create, clinging onto the past as if there are any real differences beside the screens we use to access them. Convergence means something else nowadays.

Convergence isn't between data 'types' anymore. It's all about merging the digital and the physical world.

While people still sometimes distinguish between "friends" and "friendz" on social networks, businesses have given it up. They don't have "customers" and "customerz" because they recognize that the same people online are the same people who shop in their stores or order services over the phone.

There is no difference. The medium will become increasingly indistinguishable this year, with the obvious exception of shaping its delivery. And any marketers who ignore this fact will be left behind.

It's easy enough to see convergence lurking around every corner. During the holidays, I was looking for a specific book to give to my son. A few people have read the heartfelt portion of the story (Dec. 17 post), which was recently republished by Aaron Johnston, one of the authors of the book. But there is the other half of the story that happened inside Barnes & Noble that relates to modern marketing.

It took a good half hour before I visited the customer service counter for help. I had already looked over the other possibility — from the science fiction section under Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston and new releases — and became nearly exhausted by the effort. With a couple of key strokes by the employee, she located the last copy of the book, which was sitting on a remote discount table.

It was the last copy in the store. I couldn't help but wonder why I couldn't have found it. And even if I couldn't do it using a desktop kiosk in the store, then why not my phone? Location-based technology (when I turn it on) already knows where I am. Why can't it help me find what I'm looking for there?

For that matter, why aren't books published with QR codes that automatically take you to an author page maintained by the publisher, author, or agent? Why isn't there an automated solution to pull up book reviews, recent articles, or content about the book, authors, etc. without any effort? And while I'm looking at all this content in the physical space where I can make a purchase, why doesn't the retailer give me an inventory of related books and products that are in the store (stuff I might never see)?

Who knows. Maybe I could hold a book in my hand and automatically access all of this, including any social networks where the author or authors have taken up residence. None of this is rocket science. The dots are there but we have yet to connect them between a virtual and physical world.

Moving beyond the bookstore would be simple enough. 

If this can be done with books, then other retail should be a snap. If I scan a code (or perhaps activate a proximity code on my phone) on a new car in a car lot, why can't I pull up every other car in inventory for price, gas mileage, and other comparisons? Why can't I consider every option beyond the one right in front of me or the one that the salesman decides to show me?

And if I really want to talk to a salesman, why can't I hit a call for service button on my phone instead of pushing him off when I'm not ready and struggling to hunt him down when I am ready? Who knows. Maybe I could prequalify myself for a loan right there or take in some of the sales specials that salespeople sometimes like to keep up their sleeves until they are sure you won't pay retail.

One would think that all of this ought to be second nature by now. It would be especially useful in sprawling stores like Home Depot or Walmart. It would be readily convenient if we need to find ingredient substitutes while shopping for groceries.

This is the kind of stuff that some B2B professionals have already integrated into their daily lives. (I never leave home without a digital portfolio, among other things.) But even as a consumer, I once resolved a customer service issue at Target by asking whether or not I would receive a better resolution by contacting corporate through Facebook. Where is the so-called boundary between online and off?

The first step is to stop thinking about social as a channel. 

Social networking is great, and I really enjoy that some communication work lets me operate in that space. But I'm much more fascinated with the next step, which integrates into our world as opposed to trying to prove that it has some independent value that can be measured in a vacuum. While it's possible to measure whether an organization is moving in the right direction; likes, shares, and so-called influence measures are meaningless and independent quantifiers of success. (More on that, much more, in the year ahead.)

Instead of thinking that social media and social networks can merely add communication value to the lives of the people we want to connect with, organizations need to start thinking about the technological advances that add value to the customer experience right there, right then, when they are engaged in retail space or wherever you might happen to meet. This is the kind of convergence we need in 2013.

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