Friday, December 14

Killing Quietly: Consumer Opinion


A few months ago, one of the advertising agencies we work with included social media as part of its marketing mix for a national account that we’ll call “Acme.” Acme has a conservative approach to marketing, so we weren’t all that surprised when they dismissed the social media portion of the proposal.

It was unnecessary, they said, because they purchase key words. A quick search of the company’s name reveals that they do. The company captures the top spot on Google and other search engines.

The fifth spot, however, belongs to consumer complaints about Acme. The sixth and seventh belong to individual dissatisfied customers. The eighth is a review site, littered with poor reviews.

Given each consumer description is emblazoned with words like “disaster” and “nightmare,” terms you cannot ignore when considering a major purchase, they outweigh any of the company’s neutral messages. In fact, each divergent and unanswered message compounds and erodes consumer confidence.

Imagine. All of this is being read before the company has a chance to submit a proposal or pitch the customer. Worse, it makes their customer service representatives look like cons and charlatans, ignorant of what is being said about their company at best.

It’s a shame because despite the abundance of negative messages, Acme is fine company. The primary reason for the disparity between their product and consumer opinion is largely related to unhappy consumers having louder and more passionate voices than happy customers, who are too busy enjoying the product to say anything.

Yet, unaware and/or unconvinced, the company continues to allow its brand to be slowly and quietly killed, drowning in the sea of social media. They have no idea, they say, why they have lost market share. Yet, part of the reason seems to be obvious.

Social media shapes more opinion than all other media combined.

One of the newest surveys conducted by BrandWeek reinforces the point.

• 47% of all respondents said they would go to a social networking site to download coupons or search for gift ideas if those services were available;

• 45% said they would visit a social networking site to find out about upcoming sales in stores or discounts on products;

• 22% said they would read or write a product review on a blog.

With results like these, even Nancy Costopulos, CMO for the American Marketing Association, told BrandWeek that they are well aware people are avoiding advertising messages and looking for alternative opinions.

While I won’t go so far as to say that social media is making advertising irrelevant, I will point out that if brands are the net sum of all positive and negative impressions (the relationship between the company and consumer), then it stands to reason unchecked social media may be delivering a deficit.

I suspect many companies know it too, but it’s hard to admit until there is a crisis. Even Acme demonstrated there is some truth to this. When the agency challenged Acme to present five reasons why social media is not right for them (which I was to politely and publicly address on this blog), they quickly declined.

Why not? If social media doesn’t matter, then what difference does it make? You know, they said, just in case. Unfortunately, based on online identity calculations alone for Acme, “just in case” seems to be “as a matter of fact.”

And they are not alone. While some accounts have engaged us in social media, several are content to say that they are not ready for it. Some are so not ready, they passed on a complimentary social media evaluation and proposal that might reveal how new media might best work for them.

The paradox is that they might not be ready for social media, but social media has been ready for them, starting more than a year ago. Since, it has been slowly and silently killing them for every day they remain disengaged. Special thanks to Evolution for allowing us to share this story; not all agencies are so ready address it. We are grateful to have you.

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Thursday, December 13

Advertising Focus: Online Content


Adam Mazmanian, lead editor for the American Advertising Federation’s Smart Brief, outlaid some pointed and apparent issues for 2008; challenges and opportunities that we agree will drive the conversation net year.

“Mobile marketing and social-network advertising promise to be big topics, as well as the way television advertisers grapple with an audience that is increasingly watching what they want, when they want,” he said.

Sixty two percent of Smart Brief readers, which consist primarily of advertisers and marketers, said they would advertise on an online social network. Seventy-seven percent concur that the online medium will continue to see the biggest jumps in terms of advertising growth rate.

Which medium will see the biggest growth rate in 2008?

• Online — 77 percent
• Outdoor — 8 percent
• Television — 5 percent
• Radio — 5 percent
• Print — 5 percent

Given television is counting down to go all digital and broadcast-Internet convergence seems like the next logical step in program distribution, allowing broadcasters to better develop social networks and other online support content around original programming. The future seems pretty amazing, unless eager developers like Facebook overreach.

According to Mazmanian, the FTC will be taking a hard look at the way online content providers target Web users in 2008. He said they are likely to address a growing call for a "Do Not E-mail" registry, which might be similar to the national "Do Not Call" list geared toward telemarketers.

This falls in line with what Harris Interactive cautioned mobile advertising developers about months ago. Always make it an opt-in they suggested.

All of this places a new emphasis on speed to market. Some of our own research anticipates that online content developers will be best served to have their plans in place as early as possible next year before market entrance becomes increasingly challenging, with the “shiny new object” phenomenon seeing diminished returns.

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Wednesday, December 12

Donating Nickels For Clicks: Les Scammell


When Les Scammell, a semi-retired educator and blogger living in the little town of Gympie, Australia, heard about a family struggling to keep a roof over their heads this Christmas, he and his family decided to do something about it.

They filled a couple of boxes with toys and sent them off. It was a small gesture, but enough to remind the struggling family and their children that there is still a lot to hope for in the world. The burden of a ruined Christmas for their children was lifted.

And as they often do, this simple gift of kindness by the Scammells inspired yet another. Since they had already made a small profit on their stock portfolio, they decided to donate it rather than roll it over. The proceeds have gone on to help more children through the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul Society.

From this gift, it seems Scammell learned another lesson as people often do: generosity attracts more opportunities for generosity — something he wants to share with the blogging community and anyone else who has a spare minute of time.

When you visit any of his blogs, Just 4 Families, My Radical Blogs, and Coolayla, he will donate a nickel. Visit all three today, and he’ll donate 15 cents. Visit all three, every day through Dec. 19, and you will be responsible for more than $1 donated to charity. Send 100 friends to visit, and well, you get the idea.

“We set a target of $250, but actually hope to exceed it,” says Scammell. “At present, we have $120 from online advertising (that we’re adding in) and another $50 from visitors. I hope we can make it. Really, my wish target is more around $500.”

His pledge, one nickel for every visit, with no limit, will be donated to the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul Society, and several families in the area that he says could use a PMU this holiday season. PMU, he says, stands for “pick me up.” To me, it stands for lifting the spirits of others.

“I’ve found the blogging community to be rather apathetic to a lot of causes,” Scammell says. “My traffic had a tiny spike when I first started, but has since gone down a little. I was hoping someone would Digg or help push it in other venues. But I have met some new people through the promotion and they are loyally visiting each day.”

Undeterred, Scammell continues to promote his pledge and ask people to be part of it. Nothing would make him happier than to see people visit his three blogs and drive his next donation amounts to $500 or $1,000 or even $1,500. But even his original pledge of $250 would touch a lot of lives, including yours if you take just a minute of time to visit all three blogs today, tomorrow, and for the next seven days.

Just 4 Families provides tips and hints for helping families.
My Radical Blogs offers reviews and rants from the radical blogger.
Coolayla, his newest blog, paints a picture of the town he lives in.

All three of them make giving easy with a nickel a click for children this Christmas, or a nickel for hope this holiday season. Whatever you prefer, I can promise you this — generosity attracts more opportunities for generosity.

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Tuesday, December 11

Dropping Customers: PacifiCare

Ike Piggot’s Occam’s RazR is a blog to watch for many reasons. Just one of many standout posts tells the story of how Citibank erased the last dime due from his account rather than force him to send a .10 check with a 47-cent stamp.

It’s a great customer service story and a fine example of how social media can catch people doing good. It can also catch them doing not so good.

My customer service story is a bit different, with the amount right around $1,000. That’s right. Our health care provider doesn’t want our payment for November, possibly saving us a grand.

There is catch, of course. PacifiCare would rather drop us. We found out yesterday after my partner was prompted by a past due statement that claims we did not make a payment in November.

We did make a payment in November, just without a payment coupon because PacfiCare was slow to send a new book with an adjusted rate after I moved into the 40-something column. She knew it was going up and even called to find out what the adjusted rate might be. They weren’t sure so she sent a payment anyway.

After she received the past due notice, she called again to let them know that she had sent a payment, but it apparently had not posted. In fact, she even sent yet another payment priority mail once the coupon book arrived, just in case.

The customer service representative thanked her for the call, but said it didn’t matter. According to PacifiCare, we were dropped six week ago (we just didn’t know it). So now, even if they found the payment (or both payments), our only option is to reapply, which is impossible because PacifiCare longer accepts applications from Nevada.

In other words, we were dropped six weeks ago because of PacifiCare policy and were never notified. Or perhaps more accurately, we were slowly dropped starting two years ago, ever since PacifiCare merged with UnitedHealthcare (UNH). Originally, we thought the merger might be a good thing, given the promises emblazoned on the company’s Web site.

“The health care system isn’t healthy. At UnitedHealthcare, we’re committed to improving the health care system. We aim to take what’s wrong and make it right.

We know. That’s a bold statement. But no one is better prepared to lead a heath care revolution than the strongest, most committed health care company in the nation.”


We get it. UnitedHealthcare means that if they cannot service you properly, like sending adjusted payment coupons promptly, they will drop you. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you will even find out. Amazing!

Am I upset? Not at all. Thank you PacfiCare, UnitedHealthcare, and UnitedHealth Group. Your lack of customer service has prompted us to find a better health care provider with a better plan at half the cost. We appreciate it.

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Monday, December 10

Digging In: Marketing vs. PR


Can two people be right and wrong at the same time? Bill Sledzik, associate professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Kent State University, and Geoff Livingston, author and owner of Livingston Communications, beg the question.

Sledzik is distrusting of the integration of public relations under marketing. Livingston believes in the convergence of integrated communication under marketing.

They are neither wrong nor right, or perhaps they are both wrong and right. Take your pick. Both present compelling arguments, although both posts also have points that nearly threw me out of my chair in a twisted grimace caused by the collision of comedy and tragedy — there were several such moments, but I’ll stick with the one that made me chuckle while reaching for the Tums.

Livingston’s erred definition of public relations using an online dictionary brutally misrepresents the function of public relations. And Sledzik, pulling out the dusty classical collegiate definition of marketing as defined by the 4 Ps (product, price, place, and promotion) only reinforces what many modern marketers gave up in favor of sales and profits decades ago.

If there is a convergence crisis, it is only because communication-related industries have become so fragmented and the definitions so misshapen that respected professionals in both disciplines spend more time lobbying to be above each other than they ever do to benefit their companies or clients. And if it was bad before, expect it to get worse as social media has made the battle lines look more like WWI than WWW II.

“But wait,” some might say, scratching their heads. “I thought Richard Becker was an advocate of integrated communication.”

You bet your bippy I am. But not under the condition that marketing or public relations will take the lead. You see, Sledzik is right. They are two very different disciplines. And yet, Livingston is right. We need better communication integration. But neither is right because while marketing and public relations intersect, neither can replace nor lead the other. Arg!

A Letter From Switzerland

As a longtime accreditation examiner for the International Association of Business Communicators, I have the pleasure of grading exams submitted by some very bright people, many of whom have more than a decade of experience in some facet of communication and can be easily considered leaders in their respected fields — marketing, advertising, public relations, internal communication, investor relations, community relations, etc. et al.

Specifically, this rigorous peer review process challenges candidates to demonstrate their ability to think and plan strategically and then manage the skills required to effectively implement tactics that are essential to effective organizational communication, which includes marketing, public relations, media relations, external relations, internal communication, and crisis communication.

You can learn more about the accreditation process here and as an accreditation liaison for the local chapter in Las Vegas (accreditation chair), I’ll be writing more in weeks ahead.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll simply touch on that this is a globally accepted standard of knowledge and proficiency in organizational communication, enough so that some universities recognize it as the equivalent of a master’s degree and some government agencies recognize it as an expertise that precludes certain jobs from being sent out to bid (though, some human resources departments do not). It is denoted by the designation Accredited Business Communicator (ABC), which is not to be confused with the APR, as offered by the Public Relations Society of America. (The tests are different enough that several attempts to combine them since the 1980s have failed.)

I mention the ABC today because, while I cannot share specifics as I am bound by confidentiality, my experience in grading these exams may shed light on the challenges associated with integrating communication from the disciplines of marketing or public relations. Put simply, as an examiner, I can tell which school of thought with which the candidates are most comfortable and, often but not always, razor sharp focus in either leads to communication breakdown.

Observations From The Front

An overly general and probably unfair characterization reveals accreditation candidates with a heavy marketing background tend to lack empathy and seldom consider various publics beyond their target audience, treating the transaction as more important than any long-term relationship and dismissing qualitative research with the wave of a hand. Whereas candidates with a heavy public relations background do not always link their objectives to any sort of measurable outcome, leaving one to wonder if they understand the difference between public relations and publicity (the latter is tied to promotion, folks) or realize that all the positive media in the world won’t change anyone’s mind.

Neither discipline really considers the long-term consequences that communication may have on multiple publics or how to craft a single message that will appeal to publics that have varied and even conflicted opinions about the same subject. Most do not even know how to craft communication about downsizing that will make shareholders cheer without disenfranchising and demoralizing internal stakeholders. And sometimes, in the push to redefine communication, especially with the advent of social media, many neglect the core tenets of their own disciplines, with marketing hijacked by profit seekers and sales, and public relations prowess measured by the size of an electronic media Rolodex.

In truth, both have seemed to give up ground in the areas where they have the most influence in favor of only one P, which is very place they seem to intersect — promotion. In such a world, marketing becomes sales; and public relations becomes publicity. And neither of these two distorted views of communication will have any lasting impact or profound ability to change behavior in such a way that a brand might actually become a cultural statement.

Organizational communication, though I prefer to call it strategic communication, is about much more than marketing or public relations, but values them both more than they value each other. And while some intuitive professionals may at times push above their marketing or public relations background to become a communicator, most will forever be encamped on either side of the “No Man’s Land” they created, machine guns blazing from the trenches.

And that is why Sledzik and Livingston (two people I hold in high regard in case you don’t know that), peering out of their respective foxholes, are both right and wrong. We need to integrate communication, but it will take much more than public relations or marketing to do it. See you in Versailles.

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Saturday, December 8

Getting Wishes: Jericho Rangers


Fans of the resurrected television show Jericho have finally gotten their wish, but sometimes getting a wish leaves room for mixed interpretation. The television show Jericho will return to CBS at 10 p.m. on Tues. nights, starting Feb. 12, following Big Brother.

Buddy TV has been running an online poll that reveals the fan base fractures over the decision. Only 10 percent of Jericho fans like the new time slot, 67 percent don’t care (they’ll watch anytime), and 23 percent think it is a mistake.

A mere 145 people voted, which is indicative of CBS giving up its engagement with the thousands of fans that convinced them to bring it back. Equally telling is that the Jericho Season One DVD sales did not measure up, hindered by the network’s lack of the commitment to the cause. We cautioned fans to promote the DVD heavily, as if CBS would not market it.

For pointing out the obvious, we received mixed reactions to our mixed reaction. While some did promote DVD sales, many chose to wait on faith that CBS would bring the cavalry.

No cavalry came. And CBS did virtually nothing substantial to market the DVD (surprising even me). The little they did do included a “save the show a second time” message that targeted existing fans, but nothing to attract new viewers.

Marketing, once again, proved to be the blind spot for CBS, placing Jericho in peril because it seems painfully clear that this show is being left in the hands of diminished fan base of active consumers. But perhaps that is what was planned all along, as Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, pointed out last July …

"We've really said to the fans, who have been incredibly loyal and incredibly devoted. You have got to be our 'Jericho' Rangers. You've got to recruit more viewers."

The bottom line: the timeslot hardly demonstrates network support for the seven-episode season of Jericho, even with the writers strike. It also demonstrates a lack of sensitivity to the hundreds of viewers who enjoyed Jericho as a family.

It’s not the only miss either. CBS primarily made four promises to Jericho fans when they reinstated the series in June:

• Re-broadcast “Jericho” on CBS, which they did with an odd order, until the series was pre-empted by football.
• Stream online episodes and clips online, but without much marketing support for the varied platforms where you can find it.
• Release the first season to DVD on Sept. 25, which was postponed and lacked any substantial marketing support.
• Continue the story of Jericho in digital media, which they almost did but not in any real tangible sort of way.

Form a broader social media perspective, it also demonstrates that corporate think will not necessarily translate into consumer engagement. For example, while the new Blog Council says they struggle with having 2,000 employees who blog, they’re already forgetting that finding answers is not as important as asking the right questions.

For the Blog Council, the right question isn’t what to do when you have 2,000 blogging employees. It's how do you effectively communicate your message internally so it resonates out through those 2,000 employee bloggers. For CBS, the right question was not how to end a protest. It was how to retain engaged consumers so you can turn Jericho into next year’s big hit.

Ho hum. That could have been the easy part. I can only hope the fans find a way to do it for them.

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