Wednesday, March 27

Speaking Frankly: Five PR Topics From A Banker

Paul Stowell, senior vice president and marketing manager for City National Bank, will be the first to say he isn't a banker because his public relations experience is malleable to any industry. And yet, there isn't much he doesn't know about the banking industry. He makes it his business to know. 

Like many seasoned public relations and marketing professionals, he rightly believes that it is one of the most important lessons that a communication professional can learn. It's not enough to become an expert in the field of public relations or marketing, professionals have to understand the industry where their organizations operate.

This was one of several tips he shared with a handful of students in my Writing For Public Relations class  at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last Thursday. And while he gave them many more than five tips, these were among the ones that seemed to stand out the most. 

Five words worth focus for communicators, from a senior vice president in banking.

1. Awareness. Stowell doesn't pull punches. He quickly pointed out that being in the banking industry isn't always easy since 2008. Bankers, as a profession, have a lower likability than lawyers nowadays.

Not all of it is deserved. Politicians and critics frequently demonize and vilify the industry, even when it isn't warranted. Not all banks were part of the subprime mortgage crisis that contributed to the recession, including City National Bank. These banks weren't in the mortgage business and have since emerged from the crisis safer and stronger than ever. 

That doesn't mean City National Bank was exempted from the consequences of a crisis caused by others. As the crisis wore on, investors, customers, and journalists had questions. Stowell stressed that maintaining a conservative approach wasn't enough. The bank had to continually be aware and track public reaction to the industry and communicate how it was different from other banks. 

2. Relationships. One of the most important aspects of public relations and marketing continues to be relationships, even though Stowell sees relationships eroding under the weight of social media. No, he doesn't see social media as evil. On the contrary, he advises anyone who wants to enter any communication field to know it inside and out. 

At the same time, Stowell says that many students sacrifice too much one-on-one quality for the promise of quantity that social media provides. Not all of their personal or presentation skill sets are as strong as they need to be, he said. They tend to sacrifice real relationships too often. 

Stowell says they need a more balanced approach, taking the time to make in-person impacts both internally (with executives who will teach you the industry) and outside of the industry (journalists, customers, and investors) who want to trust the professional they are talking to as much as the organization.

3. Active. With journalists facing more time famine than ever before, public relations practitioners need to consider how to make the journalist's job easier, not harder. In addition to establishing a strong and worthwhile relationship, Stowell suggests that the best news stories aren't passive, but active. 

Companies that do things naturally make news. For example, in his industry, banks that host economic forecast panels and share that information are much more likely to earn media attention. Even if the focus isn't on the bank, journalists appreciate organizations that look beyond themselves. 

The same holds true within the community. Organizations that are involved within the communities in which they operate tend to outperform those that do not — not because of the bottom line but because the bottom line is that it is the right thing to do. For City National Bank, they work diligently ramping up support for education and literary.

4. Contrast. Although implied throughout all of the lessons, Stowell places an emphasis on finding contrast points that immediately identify an organization as different. Financial stability, relationship focus, and customer satisfaction are consistently listed among the top three for City National Bank (which earned it numerous Greenwich Excellence Awards over the years).

The reason is simple enough. If potential customers perceive several organizations as virtually the same in the marketplace, then there isn't a compelling reason to choose one over the other. Stowell says this is one of the reasons that many companies that attempt to follow the leaders or simply do what other companies do eventually fail because the point of contrast people will remember is who did it first.

Considering his point, communicators have a two-fold challenge. They have to identify what the company does consistently different and well and then effectively communicate it. Ergo, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk, not one or the other.

5. Measurement. It almost goes without saying, despite the number of the public relations professionals who seem to refute it. Communication is measurable and it must be measured. 

"When a story runs in the paper one day and the bank receives seven calls to open new business accounts, it's a measurement," says Stowell. "Everything is measurable and you have to measure or you risk being unable to prove the value of public relations to the organization."

The point hit home for many of the students. Many public relations firms attempt to place value on exposure whereas the real measurement is the result of the outcome. Sometimes those outcomes are measured in direct response. Other times they are measured in public or customer sentiment.

Combined, these five topics provide a direct contrast to what many marketing and public relations professionals tend to talk about online. And, if anything, these topics tend to be the conversations that executive management have when making marketing budget decisions. Are you on the same page?

Wednesday, March 20

Measuring Effectiveness: Coke Says Buzz Is Not Enough

Plenty of people have said it before, but Coca-Cola had invested hard dollars to prove it. Online buzz is not enough to have a measurable impact on short-term sales. Online display advertising works better.

While the concept seems to contradict what social media enthusiasts tend to tout, it's one of several studies that not only raise questions about the growing interest in online influence but also refute it. After all, if buzz doesn't drive short-term sales where display advertisements might, then what about influence?

Smart companies don't make decisions based on single studies.

Of course, according to the Adweek article, Coca-Cola isn't ready to toss out the baby with the bath water. Its digital media team points out that the findings were based on one study with one segment of one company that appeals to a particular customer. In this case, one with 61.5 million Facebook fans.

Instead, Coca-Cola will continue to look for ways to measure online buzz and other popular social media counts such as video views and social sharing. The company, one of the early entrants into digital media, wants to find a predictive measure that can pinpoint financial outcomes — at least so marketers may better understand the tradeoffs among media types.

Personally, I'm not sure they have to or that it is even possible. After all, no influence expert to date has considered that obvious problem with attempting to measure online influence. Much like social media, influence does not exist in a vacuum.

The psychology of a decision-making process is bigger than one trigger.

Most people aren't subjected to a singular influence that leads to a single action like influence scoring systems such as Klout suggest. On the contrary, most people are subjected to dozens or even hundreds of complementing and contrary influencers — ideas, people, personal experiences, and other variables — before they complete a multi-decision process that leads to a purchase.

Ergo, if a friend or "influencer" recommends a book, the suggestion is subject to all sorts of variables, ranging from what other friends and influencers have said, the largely random collection of reviews that might be found prior to purchase, any number of customer reviews at the point of sale, the propensity that they have made past book recommendations, whether or not you know the author, how far off it is from your preferred genre, whether or not you are reading a different book, etc., etc.

It seems amazingly silly to credit someone who might not even be the initial influencer with what is an infinitely grand process. But that is partly why all marketing is part art and science, not just science. The human brain doesn't merely string together 0s and 1s like a computer program. It's much more complex.

Keep watching Coca-Cola anyway. It finds out all sorts of interesting things.

While attempting to isolate the impact of social media, especially buzz, might not be possible given the magnitude of the variables, Coca-Cola is discovering some interesting data related to online advertising. According to the article, the company found online display ads could be considered about 90 percent as effective as television while search advertising is only 50 percent as effective as television.

Given the continued changes that Google is making to its search algorithm, this might surprise some SEO proponents because it runs contrary to what people like to think, unless we're talking about mobile. But the truth, I think, is even more surprising. One-off SEO has undermined search as some specialists attempted to divert unrelated searches to gain traffic. People trust display ads more than search because the ad is what it is — the search suggestions might not be what they want.

But it raises another wrinkle in most studies out there. The best marketing strategists — digital or otherwise — know that like all advertising, the operative word is sometimes no matter how hard naysayers try to steer people away from one or all facets of distribution. And that "sometimes" depends not only on the distribution method but also the timing, message, presentation, product, organization, audience, and a half dozen other things that most people don't know to measure.

Wednesday, March 13

Rethinking Content: The Same Same Everywhere Is Soup


There are some big trends in social media today. Maybe some of them are inspired by niche platforms, which were were reinvigorated by the sale of Instagram to Facebook and the rush to adapt Pinterest for marketing purposes last year. Just three of the newest dozen or so platforms include Path, Fancy, and Vine. There are plenty of people looking to make their own apps too. 

I've been watching a few people and businesses attempt to adapt these platforms for business purposes. It's common enough that they have made a business out of making social networks into marketing channels. Most of them dive in, review, and then attempt to reinvent whatever the space might be for marketing by creating catchy headlines and bullet lists. They have to be first because they want to own the search space.

There is nothing wrong with it per se. I do it to from time to time, assuming I can find something slightly more timeless in all the clutter. At the same time, there is also something sad about the state of things, given that not all of these new ideas will make it. The truth is that not all social networks need to be invaded by marketing. And companies that simply sign up to share their tired content aren't necessarily helping themselves.

Same same on every social network is not a communication solution. 

One of the easiest and most challenging prospects of my strategic work is attempting to convince clients that establishing the same presence with the same messages on every social network and social app isn't a communication strategy. In fact, I tell most of them that if they cannot distinguish a unique communication purpose in each space, then they don't need it.

Sure, sometimes it's difficult to resist the allure. Path, for example, is a beautiful sharing platform. Maybe it has a use for some. Maybe it does not for others. Like many platforms trying to gain a foothold, it attempts to establish itself as the first choice for uploading content that can then be shared to other social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and Tumblr. (Think Plaxo in an app form with fewer connections.)

Fancy does that too, except it's packaged like a wish list. Vine is the most different, and possibly my favorite. It's the coolest because it has the unique function of editing together pics and video clips, turing them into mini movies. It's so good, I haven't made anything yet because if and when I make something there, it has to be good. Marketers will love it, even if most of them won't really belong there.

And that's the thing. Not everybody (especially not every company) needs to join every new space. And not everybody (certainly very few) needs to share the same content on every single social network they happen to join. (The only ones would be those that effectively develop completely different communities on each.) On the contrary, each social network is better served by a non-duplicated communication stream (with the exception of something exceptionally big). And again, unless you have a compelling reason, you might not a need an app. 

How I advised a designer to maximize his social content. 

Working in communication-related fields naturally connects me to many different kinds of creative and business people. As a member of AIGA, specifically, I know a few designers. One of them recently asked about networks because like many people, he joined more networks than he has time to create content for (without automating). 

I immediately asked him not to automate. It was selfish on my part because I'm connected to him on each network and I didn't want to read the same content over and over. So, I suggested he keep his personal Facebook account personal, use his Facebook page for design theory (almost like a blog, which he doesn't want), Twitter as a connection tool, Linkedin for client/prospect contact, and Pinterest as his portfolio or inspiration palette. He has Google+ too, but I was at a loss of what he can use it for, even if it is getting better. 

Although there will be times when one or all of those network connections will cross over (e.g., he writes a book about design), they all deserve a different approach with different content. I mostly do the same. For example, I generally only share posts here to Twitter (which I use mostly for professional connections), Linkedin (which is confined to business), and Google+ (because people still feel lonely there). It's rare I'd share it on Facebook. 

To share on my personal Facebook account, it has to include something personal too. To share on my Facebook page, it has to be associated with writing, fiction or other professional pursuits. Likewise, I don't share every Instagram photo on Facebook. I only share those I took specifically to share on Facebook. You get the idea.

The point is, despite my oversimplification, that it is boring to read the same update everywhere. If it is boring for individuals, it's a safe bet it will be boring for most companies too. It's selfish and borderline narcissistic. 

A few considerations for apps and trends in general. 

If your company is considering an app because someone said that all organizations need an app, make sure you understand why people want apps. In most cases, people download apps from businesses because they are tools. For example, if I can quickly do my banking online with the fastest and more secure connection, very cool. 

If it wants to send me advertisements, I'm not very excited. There are other considerations too. I jumped into the content-to-app market for a review site side project a few months ago. Based on downloads, Liquid [Hip] on iTunes is mostly successful as a third-party publisher/developer solution. It's available for Android too. It's free.

I'm glad we did it, but there were some consequences. Faster content access via an app resulted in less web traffic. While that's fine with me, it wouldn't be fine for everyone, especially if advertisers are buying display ads.

Maybe even more important, if the review site wasn't a side project and had a budget to develop its own app, then I would have to rethink everything. I would have to because the best apps are tools and entertainment.

Three questions to consider about content and social networks

If there is a better answer than "it depends" in determining how a business should use or consider a new social space or want to invest in one, then ask yourself or your team three questions. Any or all of them make a difference. 

1. What content can we offer on this network that we don't offer anywhere else? 
2. Do we have the time and talent to do it right and will anybody care if we do? 
3. Does all the content we create fit into our overall strategic communication plan? 

The reason these questions are so important is because organizations frequently blow one or all three. They share the same content on every network. They create self-interest content (what they want people to hear) more often than anything that people will find interesting or helpful (what people want to hear). And many of them adopt tactics that seem effective for the medium without considering the company's long-term brand.

Long term is key here. Social networks, campaigns, etc. all come and go. Brands need a longer shelf life. So rather than continuing to allow short-term social networks and search engines to wag the company brand around, it might be wise to spend more time on the strategic side again. It's where the real strength needs to be.

Thursday, March 7

Reinventing The Wheel: How To Think Forward

The expression is so common in communication, software development and some engineering segments that many people recognize it as cliche. And yet, there are those who still love to lean on it.

"Let's not reinvent the wheel."

The concept behind it feels right. The idiomatic metaphor warns people away from duplicating a basic method that has already been created and optimized by others. Thus, a wheel is a wheel is a wheel.

But is a wheel just a wheel? If you take some time to think about it, the real brilliance wasn't the wheel in 3,500 B.C. It was the fixed axle. Right on. It didn't take any talent to conceive the rolling cylinder, which has been reinvented a few thousand times to accommodate different applications. (One of my ancestors, in fact, very literally reinvented the wheel with the introduction of pneumatic tires.)

Anyway, the real scientific advancement was figuring out how to connect a stable stationary platform to the cylinder. Without the axle, the wheel is mostly useless. But I'm not suggesting we turn a more accurate phrase by saying "let's not reinvent the fixed axle." After all, even an axle can be reinvented.

"Let's reinvent everything."

The truth is that had automobile manufacturers took a bigger interest in hovercraft technology, wheels might feel as passé as cassette tapes today (except for specific applications). But automobile manufacturers didn't do it, begging the question: what has not reinventing land transportation cost us?

And this is something that business executives and communicators might start asking themselves more often. What is the cost of not reinventing something? And, if not cost, how about missed opportunities?

When you look at some of the most successful companies in history, almost all of them were in the reinvention business. Steve Jobs reinvented computers and phones. Henry Ford reinvented car manufacturing. Edwin Land reinvented photography. And the list continues, with history tending to remember those who invented or reinvented something over those who borrow against invention.

The same holds true for best practices too. In communication (and social media in particular), there are far too few developing best practices and far too many searching for them. In some cases, it has led to what some people call a follow the leader mentality in social media and communication. I'm not as generous. I call it follow the follower, which is what spawns marketing myths and strands communicators anytime a social network reminds them that best practices are short term.

Best practices are inspiration points, not shortcuts. 

The best communication plans for any organization rely on three concepts: temporal communication, adaptable contrasts, and best practice analysis for process adoption. The latter places a greater emphasis on evaluating best practices for possible adoption, but only after they are reinvented to fit.

It's somewhere in between the Not Invented Here (NIH) culture of some organizations and Not Anything New (NAN) culture of some organizations, with NIH assuming everything ought to be invented and NAN assuming everything that exists today is good enough. The people who subscribe to NIH frequently fool themselves into believing their ideas are new at great cost. And the people who subscribe to NAN were likely trying to find faster horses instead of building automobiles in the 1900s.

But what organizations really need are people who can research all the best practices and either reinvent them to fit or discover what no one else has done before. In the process, it usually results in something unique in its construction or an innovation that can change everything. In many cases, this is how some of the best and brightest companies started. And the same can be said for the best campaigns too.

Tuesday, March 5

Smoking Guns: Why Anti-Smoking Campaigns Fail

The best guess by Gallup in determining the number of people who smoke in the United States is 20-22 percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this estimate fits. The CDC frequently cites that one in five people smokes cigarettes.

The number has mostly plateaued since 2000; slightly down depending on how it is sliced. But tracking the percentage can be a bit misleading as the population has grown too. In other words, the number of smokers in the U.S. is relatively constant (or may be increasing), which means it's time to face facts.

The four-decade long barrage of anti-smoking campaigns is no longer effective. 

The reason seems pretty clear. Most anti-smoking campaigns do not target smokers. They target non-smokers in an attempt to vilify people who smoke instead. And that's fine, as long as policymakers and nonprofit organizations want to spend millions or more on ineffective advertising campaigns or pass anti-smoking legislation and sin taxes to make themselves look like heroes.

I think we can do better, but it will take better campaigns. They have to be targeted and they can't all be negative. After all, there is psychological evidence that suggests negative messages produce negative results. That might be especially true for smoking — the ages most exposed to anti-smoking campaigns are overwhelming under the age of 18. Coincidentally, the majority of smokers start before they turn 18.

For many of them, it was never about smoking being cool as advertising censors claimed. It is about being defiant to authority, demonstrating a foolhardy sense of immortality, tempting fate by flirting with something potentially addictive, or being accepted by peers and adults (e.g., parents who smoke) like it was a private club. The campaigns all play into this notion.

Afterward, once someone becomes a smoker, anti-smoking campaigns take on a different feel. They either make smokers feel bad about smoking or convince them to light up in defiance. The messages aren't much different from individual abuse smokers receive on a daily basis — which is impossibly ironic, given how many states are passing anti-smoking laws but legalizing marijuana.

Creating a better anti-smoking campaign means a bigger focus on benefits. 

Many campaigns that are designed to help people quit aren't properly constructed. Most of them reinforce negative messages — how hard it will be to quit smoking, the impossibly low success rate (and significantly high relapse rate), and additional consequences commonly associated with quitting cold turkey or attempting to step down using gum, patches, e-smokes, or other nicotine replacements.

If you are are a non-smoker, think of any habit you have. If someone told you half of what they tell smokers, would you want to try to kick the habit? Probably not, especially if stress is a trigger.

A much more effective campaign would have a two-fold approach. First, it would help smokers stop smoking as opposed to quitting outright. Second, it would focus on the benefits and not the curse.

Don't quit. Just stop. 

Stopping could mean any number of things, all of which would eventually help any smoker stop completely. It could mean they stop smoking in certain locations (cars, houses, etc.), at certain times (immediately after meals, while drinking, etc.), in front of certain people (co-workers, clients, kids), etc.

With each successful 'stop,' smokers tend to become vigilant in controlling the addiction. Each 'stop' leads to another until the act of smoking becomes more annoying than pleasurable. Some people might be surprised how often they might put off smoking if it feels like a chore. At minimum, it will make them more aware of how often they smoke and what triggers (prompt to smoke) they might have.

Along with these 'stops,' many smokers have an easier time stopping after they switch to a natural/organic cigarette. While natural/organic cigarettes are not considered healthier alternatives, there may be truth to the idea that commercial cigarettes have more addictive ingredients. They most certainly have more additives, as many as 600. Nicotine is hard enough to give up. Don't risk other additive addictions.

The benefits of stopping.

The benefits of not smoking are easily undersold. When most campaigns talk about the benefits, they talk about long-term ailments (e.g., cancer) or use them to paint all smokers as an unhealthy, smelly group of vile people. That doesn't help smokers stop. What might are the immediate short-term benefits.

Stopping for even 20 minutes can lower your pulse rate and blood pressure. Stopping for eight hours will remove more than 90 percent of the nicotine from your body. Stopping for 12 hours will drop carbon monoxide levels to normal and raise blood oxygen to normal.

It only takes two days for smell and taste receptors to begin to heal. It only takes three days for the lungs to begin to heal. It only takes ten days before teeth and gums to begin to heal. Within a few weeks, the circulatory system and heart begin to heal. Even insulin returns to normal in about two months. Eventually, most damage can be reversed until even some risks return to non-smoker or even never-smoker levels.

The changes and benefits are dramatic. And while such benefits timetable lists vary (a few are paired with disturbing images), talking about them could significantly help a smoker find a short-term health benefit that means something to them — from their teeth and gums to shortness of breath after exercise.

The two times I stopped smoking. 

Even when I smoked, most people didn't know it. I seldom smoked in public and would mostly hide myself away if I did. Conversely, despite the habit, I exercised regularly, ate well, and established an aggressive teeth maintenance program. I never smoked in my house, car or in my office — always outside, rain or shine.

I stopped smoking last month. And unlike the other time I tried to stop, this time was relatively easy.

The difference was all in the approach. The first time, maybe eight years ago, I did it the way campaigns tell you to do it. I tossed out everything related to smoking. And much like they warned, I was irritable and miserable. And then I felt even worse, like I was letting everyone down. I lost.

This time was different because I had already stopped smoking 90 percent of the time. Then one day last January, I caught a cold and just stopped. I didn't tell anybody. I didn't throw anything away. I still have seven packs in the cupboard. They empower me more than tempt me. It's my choice to not smoke.

I initially made a choice that going outside in the cold was less desirable than just going to bed. When I woke in the morning, I decided to see how long I could wait. That wait never ended. Sure, there were some cravings here and there, but I already had a list of things that always made me not want to smoke — carrots, apples, cashews, sugar-free Jelly Bellies, gum, etc. (everyone has their own things). So, I would have one or two of those things instead. I was never irritable either. It felt easy.

While I would never suggest anyone take as long as I did to stop outright, I had to develop a plan that didn't exist — one that worked for me. Sure, seven years is too long, but my future self wasn't around to create a better campaign. A better campaign could have helped me stop sooner and possibly helped me avoid having surgery this year.

Unfortunately, I don't see many effective campaigns in the cards. Very few people in the medical profession want to embrace a step-down program without relying on prescription medication (all of which have higher relapse rates). Most anti-smoking advocates stress lifelong victimhood over willpower (because it helps funding). Most advertising agencies would rather have 80 percent of the population notice an ad than a fraction of 20 percent (because awareness is more valued than results). And the general negativity toward smokers is ingrained by a majority; it's as depressing as it is hypocritical (considering obesity rates and the recent legalization of marijuana).

Even some of the communication from trusted sources is off. The CDC, for example, estimates that 1 in 5 Americans dies from cigarette-related causes. Since they also say only 1 in 5 Americans smoke, the figure is either fudged or the government is suggesting that all people who smoke die from cigarette-related causes. Meanwhile, many cancer rates continue to rise anyway. Let smokers stop, guilt free.
 

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