Wednesday, August 27

Is The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Really A Win?

When marketers think about outcomes, it's hard to argue with numbers. The ALS Association has earned $88.5 million in donations (and counting) this year versus $2.5 million during the same period of time last year.

The nonprofit organization bumped up other numbers too. According to the only national nonprofit organization fighting Lou Gehrig's Disease, they've added 1.9 million in new donors. The reason this new donor count is important is it demonstrates that many of the people taking the ice bucket challenge are donating too. And even if they don't donate, it doesn't matter.

The truncated rules of the ice bucket challenge are pretty simple. If you accept the ice bucket challenge, then you donate $10 and nominate three more people versus donating $100 outright. Your decision has to be made in 24 hours. All nomination videos are shared on social networks.

In sum, this is a viral campaign built on a pyramid scheme that resurrects the campy but famous Faberge Organics tagline "and she told two friends ... and she told two friends" (plus one). So even if someone doesn't donate or refuses, there is a good chance someone else will accept and donate.

There is nothing wrong with that. So why all the pushback? 

As the ALS Association campaign continues to succeed exponentially, the ice bucket challenge has picked up its fair share of detractors. Most of the pushback revolves around seven complaints.

1. Whether or not these donations will cut into other charities.
2. Whether or not it is a giant waste of water and resources.
3. Whether or not animal testing is justified to benefit humans.
4. Whether or not clinical trials justify stem cell research.
5. Whether or not it reinforces slacktivism, which hurts activism.
6. Whether or not this cause is more important than another.
7. Whether or not the challenge has worn out its welcome.

All seven have varied degrees of merit, depending on personal perspective. But other people don't think so, with a few people coming out against those who are against the challenge. So mostly, ice bucket challenge haters beware. Or maybe not. Participation is always best with your eyes wide open.

Matt Damon, for example, tried to demonstrate this by using toilet water instead of drinking water. Doing so created an opportunity to promote clean drinking water in addition to the ALS Association. For other ethical or moral dilemmas, of course, there is no middle ground. Respect that, if nothing else.

Even with some people opting out and other people tired of the challenge, the campaign has reached a tipping point. Two days ago, the ice bucket challenge had only raised $70.2 million. Yesterday, it raised $79.7 million. The numbers suggest the campaign is holding steady at around $9 million a day.

So with all things considered, is the ALS ice bucket challenge a win?

Social media, and social networks in particular, has created a weird obsession with labeling something a win or fail. The ice bucket challenge isn't really either, even if it is a windfall.

On one hand, the organization has clearly raised a record that will likely stand for a long time. It also gained signification attention (and some awareness, which is different), more than it has in a long time. It's also likely that the organization will retain a percentage of those first time donors next year.

On the other hand, the vast majority of donors will not likely donate again. It's also unlikely (but not impossible) that this will become a sustainable action (or non-action as some people like to claim). It might even result in pullback next year, with people saying they did that last year. They did it and they're done, with some people still not sure why they participated in the challenge.

In short, the campaign wasn't brilliant as much as it was the right one at the right time. And as marketers, the real challenge will not be in celebrating the windfall, but in developing a bridge campaign that can transform flash-in-the-pan attention into educational awareness and sustainable action. If the ALS Association can do that, then this campaign (regardless of money raised) is a win.

Otherwise, it can best be described as a happy accident, one that other organizations ought to be wary about trying to duplicate (unless they are prepared to take a shot in the dark). But more than that, the real tell is what happens next. The ALS Association has a tremendous opportunity to create an endowment that will sustain a higher level of research for years to come (unless it believes it is close enough to a cure to push it across the finish line) and nurture support beyond the confines of this lucky long shot (while weathering the strain that comes with it).

Sure, everyone can expect more complaints about the challenge. Some are symptoms of success. Some open up dialogue for other social needs. And some provide a suitable level of transparency because there is nothing worse than someone who regrets their donation because they didn't know this or that. None of these complaints, however, will diminish what the organization has accomplished in terms of fundraising.

So maybe the question that needs to be asked isn't whether the campaign won or lost but whether the campaign achieved its mission to become the most trusted source of information for Lou Gehrig's Disease while demonstrating compassion. And beyond that, like every marketer ought to know, the best question to ask is not whether this is a win but what could the ALS Association have done better, what can it do better next time, and what its obligation is to all those people who supported it.

Wednesday, August 20

How To Stand Out In The Content Marketing Crowd

Maybe it is because marketers have turned more than one quarter of their budgets over to content marketing and as many as 62 percent of all companies outsource content creation, but it seems to be true. More people consider themselves writers today than any other time in history. Someone has to produce the 27 million new pieces of content that are shared each day. It might as well be writers.

Sure, some of them might be designers or public relations professionals or photographers or business owners first, but writing tends to be treated as a verb more than a noun. In fact, even those writers who do embrace it as a noun mostly do so with trepidation. I can't count the number of times that I've heard writers sum themselves up by saying "Oh, I'm just a writer" as if such a thing exists.

I don't really think so. No matter what people call themselves, there are people who write and then there are writers. And no, the distinction isn't only tied to proficiency. It's also tied to sense of purpose.

People who write see the task at hand as something that needs to get done. Writers see it as an opportunity to express an idea and hone their craft. A few don't even have a choice. They must write.

But this post isn't about that minority as much as another. There are some people who write who want to become writers. The only problem for them is that they don't look in the right places. They will never learn how to write a compelling blog post by reading blog posts about writing blog posts. You have to look beyond the medium of content creation to find anything worthwhile. Learn from great writers.

Five thoughts about writing from great writers and what they mean.

1. "If you want to be the writer that you confront 30 years later without shame, then learn to ignore your readers." — Harlan Ellison

Ellison knows that his readers are terrific people and mean well enough. But he also knows that once your readers start to know what they like from you, they will demand it over and over again. If you simply deliver what they think they want, then you will look back and discover you've written the same book a dozen times over or, in the case of content creation, the same post.

People often ask why some of the best content creators come and go. It's very much what Ellison said. If you want to be successful, you'll  have to surrender to writing the same thing over and over. Few people can stomach it, which is why some of the best writers drift over time.

2. "For me, the criterion [of being a great writer] is that the author has created a total world in which his people move credibly." — James Michener

When Michener said it, he referenced works like Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray and Huck Finn by Mark Twain. But then he went on to define it as being able to give your writing its own little cosmos. Doing so gives your writing the sense that it really exists in the real world and gives people the opportunity to accept it.

When content creators talk about doing the same thing in an article or post, they often refer to authenticity. There are bloggers who do it especially well. When you read their work, you almost immediately know it is them because they've lace little bits of themselves into the writing.

3. "My advice to writers who want to write columns is to learn to think, learn about history, learn about economics, learn subjects." — Ellen Goodman 

Goodman went on to describe that journalists writing columns (and we can add bloggers and content creators to her list today) can divide much of what they write into two kinds of stories. There are stories that tell you want happened and stories that tell you what it means. So in order to transcend the experience, you have to know your subject, you have to have a view, and you have to care.

Most content today seems to be written much like Goodman describes. Some writers do something or respond to what other people have done and then write about it. Some writers look for something deeper than the surface observations and add significant depth to the content or perhaps add innovation and clarity to the another field. A few overlap.

4. "There is a terrible tendency in this country to consume art and culture, to try to package it in the same way that all our other familiar products are packaged, and that can be terribly distorting to the work, to the art and culture." — Jay McInerney 

The more a writer allows himself to become processed by the machine, the more their work suffers for it. McInerney warns writers away from becoming too distracted by publicity or critics or anyone. The only thing that really counts, he says, is the writing — the ability to convey a thought, idea, or tangible experience to someone else in such a way that it matters to them.

This is true among commercial writers too. While copywriters, public relations professionals, and even modern journalists are pressured to produce content within the tight confines of what the client or agency expects, what might produce an outcome, or what generates traffic, it's always best to push all that aside while writing the draft. All those other mandatories — packaging that ranges from word counts to headline structures — can wait until later.

5. "If you get too predictable and too symmetrical, you lull your readers into — not a literal sleep — but you put their brain to sleep." — Tom Robbins

According to Robbins, the primary purpose of imagery is never to entertain but to awaken the reader to his or her own sense of wonder. If you become too predictable, the rhythm of the language will eventually languish and lose its angelic  intensity. When that happens, the words begin to lose their emotional impact even if the readers continue to read. You have to find a way to wake them up and engage them.

This is the primary reason you'll see marketers and even some others proclaim their preference for shorter and shorter works. The problem is almost never the length. It's almost always in the rhythm and in the beat. You have to change it up. Wake them up.

Do you really think SEO alone will make one piece of content beat 27 million others?

The writing tips above were pulled, in part, from On Being A Writer, a book that was gifted to me very early in my career. It's out of print now, but readily available as an after-market purchase. I don't know if I would call it the best book on writing there ever was, but it does compile 31 interviews with great writers and poets. Their advice is timeless, even if the book is almost history.

The point of it, I suppose, it that if someone who writes really wants to become a writer, then it's more than worthwhile to look beyond the task and more toward the craft. Learn to be a writer by considering the insights of people like Ellison, Michener, Goodman, McInerney, and Robbins. They all say similar things for a reason. There is an art to the craft that transcends all those other nifty tidbits. And you will find them almost anywhere link bait doesn't exist. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, August 13

When Everything Is Direct Response, Nothing Is Worth Measuring

Ivan Pavlov
Direct response has always been popular among marketers. The allure of it is simple and straightforward. An organization sends out, let's say, 1,000 direct mail letters with an offer and 10 percent of those who receive the offer respond. That is your response rate. That is your return on investment.

I intentionally used the direct mail letter as an example because direct response used to be associated with mail. The truth is, of course, that it has included call to action ads and television commercials, coupons, telemarketing, broadcast faxing, email marketing, and a host of online tactics that range from pop-up ads to paid placement on search engines.

The only reason direct mail remains associated with this niche marketing tactic is because that is where it started, with Aaron Montgomery Ward producing the first mail-order catalog in 1872. This won't always be the case. Direct marketers are more likely to call the field data-driven marketing.

It's still very popular too. In 2012, the Direct Marketing Association estimated $156 billion was spent on direct marketing under its new moniker data-driven marketing. I've read elsewhere that data-driven marketing accounts for as much as 8 percent of the GDP in the United States. That's a ton.

So what's wrong with that? Nothing really, except for the growing number of marketers that are attempting to apply direct response rates to every bit of communication. It doesn't work that way.

People who only measure the immediate suck the results out of their long term. 

If we were talking about fitness, I might liken direct response marketers to people who step on the scale every morning to check their weight. If the scale reads minus one pound, they feel successful. If the scale reads plus one pound, they feel defeated.

Ask someone trying to lose weight and they might even confess that anytime they gain a pound, they are compelled to inventory everything they did and ate the day before as if they could pinpoint its origin. Was it because they cut their cardio short for five minutes? Was it the turkey on their salad at lunch? Was it the half-glass of 2 percent milk they drank at dinner?

Pavlov's Dog
No wonder people who diet are so easily defeated. They are constantly measuring the wrong thing, thanks in part to this odd obsession with weight in most anti-obesity campaigns. But it's a mistake because body composition (not weight) is the cornerstone of a successful fitness program. And to successfully change your body composition, you need process goals as well as performance goals.

Marketing, advertising, and public relations work much in the same way. The total composition of your strategic communication plan has a greater long-term impact than any single piece or part. So while you can measure the direct response of almost anything, one pound either way means nothing.

Where is direct response measurement starting to infringe on effective communication? 

Public Relations. More and more firms are allowing themselves to measure the number of pickups, total impressions, and advertising rate value delivered by each news release. But doing so creates an erroneous impression that some releases or pitches are good and others bad. The truth is, however, that relationships with the media cannot be measured by whether or not a reporter picks up a story. Provided the pitches and releases are grounded in having news value, even if you think they are ignored, they could eventually prompt a reporter to call out of the blue looking for an expert source.

Advertising. Every now and again, I share the story of an attorney who was convinced that the bulk of his marketing budget should be invested in the phone book yellow pages. When asked why, he was perplexed that it wasn't obvious. They spend more money where they get the most response. But that wasn't true. The attorney only received his greatest response from the phone book because that is where he invested the most marketing dollars. A better composition, not more money, eventually delivered a better response.

Social Media. Social media specialists and search engine optimization experts alike are often quick to judge the quality of content — whether it's a video, blog post, or tweet — by any number of direct response measures such as likes, shares, or incoming keyword traffic. While these measures are always good to look at, they also skew the story toward the first impression and not the final outcome or total user experience. Marketers need to remember that reputation is built by the total body of work.

Journalism. More than ever before in the history of media, journalism has become a populist medium. Reporters are less likely to cover stories that the public may find interesting and much more likely to cover stories that the public already finds interesting, which is grounded in direct response. The recent death of one particular actor and comedian may even be the tipping point. I don't recall someone's death ever being exploited as much as this one. But the media won't let up because the response rate is encouraging the exploitation.

There are dozens of examples. It's why Mat Honan can produce a wacky reality simply by liking everything on Facebook. It's why the greedy coin algorithm will usually fail. It's why author-photographer Geoff Livingston couldn't reconcile how the algorithms see art. And it's precisely why most people quit exercising when they don't see their weight change (as muscle replaces fat).

So while direct response will always be worthwhile (especially when it is enhanced by creativity, timing, and proper targeting), it doesn't mean direct response measurements and other algorithms can be applied to everything. If they were then Vincent van Gogh would have been lost to history and the person you're mostly likely to marry is simply quantified by a successive run of good dates.

So don't be fooled. Good marketing only looks simple because it is complicated. Sure, direct response has its place (much like weight) but only if your process goals and performance goals are designed to deliver the right strategic communication composition. And that's the truth, "like" it or not.

Wednesday, August 6

Does Social Media Crap Deserve Its Defenders?

It didn't take long at all. Within 15 minutes after the Ad Contrarian posted Why Your Social Strategy Sucks, there was a buzz of affirmation and then dissention. Some people felt he hit the nail on the head. Others thought he was unfair, cynical, and very discouraging. "At least people try," they said.

His contention was — much like television commercials, movies, books, songs, and paintings — about 93 percent of all social media sucks. But unlike all other mediums, people aren't satisfied when the crap they create on social media doesn't go anywhere. They just promote it and push it harder.

It's hard to argue with him. Take a look at Facebook. It made $2.36 billion in ad revenue last quarter.

Do you really think marketers spent $2.36 billion in three months to promote content that was wildly creative and instinctively compelling? Trust me. They spend it on the content nobody wants to see.

"Producing crap is better than being silent," one person wrote. "At least you have a chance."

The entire topic is perplexing to me. Does social media crap deserve to be defended? I'm not so sure.

If we can no longer identify crap for what it is, then we truly have surrendered to the notion that advertising, communication, design, marketing, and social media have become such a banal commodity that anybody can do it. And if that is true, then none of our experience, education, expertise, and talent adds value. Everybody deserves a certificate of participation. At least they tried.

No wonder some pros are discontent. In a world where everyone is a storytellerstorytelling ceases to have any identifiable meaning beyond the mundane. We can all rehash our day at the dinner table.

So let's not be delusional. Not every life event is created equal. Not all publicity is good publicity. Not all criticism is cynicism. Sometimes the very best thing that anybody can ever do for you is tell you when your content is not working so you can stop misappropriating time, wasting money, and (perhaps) damaging your brand. And if more professionals had the courage to call out questionable ideas, then maybe fewer marketing budgets would be wasted and more companies would succeed.

Producing crap is not better than being silent. Because while crap might give you a chance to be noticed, it also robs you of any chance to make your best first impression. And therein lies the difference between "trying" something out online and executing part of a strategic plan.

While either method can produce crap, one is informed enough to see it for what it is and take action to fix it. The other merely tries to convince people otherwise. When they do, we all lose. Just like saturated fat, the public can easily develop an appetite for it and then our clients will order more too.
 

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