Thursday, February 7

Speaking Chinese: Salesgenie.com Pandas

Salesgenie.com was not the only SuperBowl advertisement to attempt “ethnic humor,” but it is among the first ads to be pulled amid growing customer complaints.

The New York Times reported yesterday that the spot will be pulled from the airways, though it hasn’t been pulled from the Salesgenie.com Web site as of this morning.

When I first read the article, I thought to give Vinod Gupta, chairman and chief executive of InfoUSA (parent company of Salesgenie.com), some props in handling the public relations fallout over the ad. It makes good sense to apologize and pull the advertisement. That’s responsive.

But in looking at his explanation, I became more skeptical. Gupta, who wrote the advertisements himself, told The New York Times that “We never thought anyone would be offended. The pandas are Chinese. They don’t speak German.”

Well, pandas don’t really speak so who really knows.

In looking at the ad again, perhaps I can offer some explanation for Gupta why the pandas drew more criticism than Salesgenie.com’s Ramesh spot, which also employed accents. Unlike the Ramesh spot, which also wasn’t very good, the pandas cross the fine line between laughing with people and laughing at people.

If Gupta believed his own explanation, then Salesgenie.com’s “psychic” panda would have a Chinese accent too. She does not. She also adds separation between Salesgenie.com’s apparently ignorant target audience and the wisdom of the company. The spot just isn’t good enough to carry any comedy.

The Ramesh spot, on the other hand, doesn’t drive home such separation, with exception to the quip about “having seven children,” which is why it didn’t draw criticism. However, there’s another reason too. The spot isn’t good enough to generate any emotion. It just lands flat.

I faced a similar call last year when a client asked me to add in ethnic accents on the tail end of a radio spot. Instead, I wrote the scripts two ways, and the one without accents survived. Why? Because accents aren’t funny. Specific people are funny, whether or not they have an accent makes no difference at all.

Case in point, it’s not funny to learn that people have been making fun of Gupta’s accent for years. What might be funny is a CEO laughing at his own wit and having “yes men” follow him around agreeing with whatever comes out of his mouth. You know, as if he just came up with the best SuperBowl commercials of the year. It might not even be that far from the truth, because this is the second year Gupta-written Salesgenie.com commercials were disliked.

The New York Times attributed the backlash to being indicative of increasing consumer sensitivity to marketing messages, particularly when ethnic images are involved. Hmmm … I think it is indicative of increasing consumer sensitivity to dumbed down marketing messages, particularly when the only people who like them are the creators. Right on. When you can’t be funny, shoot for publicity. Yuk, yuk, yuk. Yawn.

For another funny, check out MultiCultClassics, where I read Gupta is ready to pick up his pen next year too. I can hear his staff in back ground right now, “Brilliant idea! You're one funny guy.”

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Wednesday, February 6

Adding Facebook Value: Loomia


It’s true. I’ve never been a Facebook fan. I maintain an account because some people I know like it, but I have never felt “fully migrated” along with the rest of my fellow social network nomads.

Dark cloud coverage every few weeks seems to reaffirm my one toe in approach: the Beacon fiasco, the business bans, the negative cash flow , and on, and on.

However, every now and again, there seems to be a silver lining that comes in the form of a third-party widget. The addition of a Twitter feed was one. And now, SeenThis? by Loomia is another.

SeenThis? by Loomia

The value seems to be much deeper than the launch partners who dominated the early buzz last week. Having The Wall Street Journal Online (WSJ), NBC Universal, and CNET Networks as partners is certainly news, but SeenThis?, which allows social network members to share what they read via Facebook, is a well thought out application that adds real value to the online experience.

The original concept was simple enough. David Marks, co-founder and CTO, along with the rest of the Loomia team, wanted to create a social network tool that mimicked personal social patterns in real life and used recommendation applications they have already provide to many sites.

“When people see a movie or read a good article, they share it with friends and co-workers,” said Marks. “We wanted to bring this online, helping them ‘stay in the know’ with friends, groups and networks.”

Simply stated, the new Facebook application tracks articles that you and your friends, group members, and network members read, allowing you to see what articles might be popular. For example, three of my Facebook groups found some interest in the WSJ article “Google Aims to Crack China With Music Push” so I decided to take a look.

Once there, I skimmed the article and also noticed that WSJ’s publisher version of the application lists other related stories, new stories, popular stories, and — which is very cool — other WSJ stories that my friends, groups, or networks found interesting, like the “Mac Ad You Will Never See."

Even better, to make SeenThis? work as combination convergence and recommendation tool, all of the data was collected anonymously. It will remain anonymous unless you specifically choose to share a particular article link with selected Facebook friends (whether they have added the SeenThis? widget or not).

In some ways, it's like having your own mini-Digg site, except it's confined to your networks and much more passive in gaging interest among selected publishers. You and your friends interest in a subject is dependent on what you read, not what you group vote up or down.

SeenThis? Will Move Beyond Facebook

In the near future, SeenThis? will not be confined to a Facebook application. It will be deployable on other social networks. Marks tells me that MySpace (which recently opened its platform to developers) and OpenSocial are likely to be the next.

Facebook was first, primarily because of its very friendly API development platform, he said. But the vision driving SeenThis? goes well beyond a single social network. And that is part of its charm.

As new social networks are added, SeenThis? will compile the data across all of these networks, allowing subscribers to track popular content across as many or as few as they want. Likewise, people using SeenThis? can pick and choose from 18 content providers (and growing), including: partners like CNET, NBC, and WSJ and publishers like TechCrunch, Slate, and The Economist. One of the newest content additions is College Humor, which was added after people already using the widget asked Loomia to do so.

In addition to compiling data as a convergence tool, SeenThis? makes it easy to scan headlines from multiple publications. This seems especially useful for bloggers who want to tailor their posts to media stories that their social networks and friends already find interesting. Bloggers can add a Loomia widget to their blogs as well. While I don't believe it will be included in the SeenThis? feeds (publisher feeds can be), the widget will add recommended articles based on blog content.

The application is free, provided you choose the ad-supported version by Loomia. There are other versions with a tiered pricing structure as well.

SeenThis? And Privacy

Data collection always raises privacy flags, especially when it is related to Facebook. However, SeenThis? has taken several steps to keep any data collected completely anonymous, including expirations on how long this data is stored.

“SeenThis? users have complete control over how they share information,” Marks said. “They remain completely anonymous unless they share a story (send a link) to their friends.”

Marks said that most research, including Loomia’s own, shows that people want to know what their friends, groups, and networks are reading, but no one really wants to share everything they read. By collecting and pooling data among anonymous users who have opted in, SeenThis? networkers will enjoy the best of both worlds.

SeenThis? May Set The Next Wave

According to Marks, SeenThis? will be added to an increasing number of social networks soon, and users will be able to employ it in some interesting ways: discussions can be created around popular content and articles; users will be able to opt in to receive select notifications; and you can always control which publishers appear on your site or social network page.

To me, it really demonstrates that there are widgets, and then there are widgets. Loomia seems to have created the latter, tapping into the growing online social awareness . It’s relevant and useful, perhaps one of the most responsive applications built around the people who will use it.

It is also intuitive in that there is a new social layer being developed as social networks open up their platforms. Developers like Loomia are looking for new ways to manage portable groups and content. Marks says we can expect to see more applications like this in the near future. I think he’s right.

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Tuesday, February 5

Finding Ideas: Live Outside Your Ecosystem


Among the tips I like to provide students taking my “Writing For Public Relations” class is to expand their knowledge and networks well beyond any confined industry ecosystem. Spend too much time within any ecosystem and specialists risk becoming endangered species. Online or off, there is no difference.

This is one of the reasons while I place value on creating relationships with public relations practitioners, advertising gurus, communication specialists, etc., I also work build connections and participate outside of my area of focus.

Mark Stoneman, historian, recently brought this up as a discussion topic in our BlogStraightTalk group. He was prompted by Janet Rae-Dupree’s article in The New York Times. My speaking schedule might provide an example as I'll have to adapt to meet the needs of each group.

Las Vegas Recruiting Roadshow — 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Feb. 27

Ever since John Sumser organized what he calls an experiment to bring local recruiters into the industry’s larger network infrastructure, the road show has made some impressive gains in helping the industry build bridges and network. Since the show is coming to Las Vegas, Sumser asked if I’d discuss the merits of social networking for about 30-45 minutes. In Vegas? You bet.

So on Feb. 27, I’ll be among the five speakers discussing various topics at the Green Valley Resort • Spa • Casino. It’s free with registration.

What do I get out of discussing topics with recruiters? You might be surprised. They provide an interesting link to personal branding, human resources, labor relations, and executive management to name a few; topics that my industry doesn’t always consider. Tip for communicators: learn more about business.

Editing and Proofreading Your Work — 9 a.m. to noon, March 1

This class is a half-day day session that focuses on improving clarity, consistency, and correct usage in personal and business communication through the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. While the class provides some overlap instruction for the Writing For Public Relations course, it also attracts a diverse group of people ranging from future authors and freelancers to business managers and yes, people within the communication profession.

So on March 1, I’ll be finding new ways to make the nuts and bolts of writing effectively as an editor interesting for a diverse group of people on the campus. The class is $85 and includes handouts.

The diversity of the students always leads to some interesting questions during class. It helps me stay fresh, considering any number of writing questions I never consider on a daily basis, including when to use “whilst.” Tip for writers: different forms and styles open ideas that can be applied to other forms and styles.

IABC/Las Vegas Speed Workshop— 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., March 4

The International Association of Business Communicators Las Vegas (IABC/Las Vegas) is adding speed to speaking as six speakers will play musical tables every ten minutes. I’ll be among them, discussing social media.

Anyone in social media might find the time frame amusing. Just how much information can be gleaned about social media, skewed slightly for non-profits (I’m told), inside of ten minutes? If I’m being honest, I’m just not sure yet, other than needing to write tight, talk fast, and bring handouts.

The program registration has not been added online yet, but I do know it will be held at Maggiano's, which is located at the Fashion Show Mall. The program is $30 for IABC members and students; $35 for guests. It includes lunch. Tip for executives: all the dismissal of social media in the world won’t change the fact that people are talking about your company online.

IABC/Las Vegas generally attracts communicators from a wide variety of industries, including the non-profit sector. Working on various boards and for several organizations, I’ve developed some great relationships, including with members of the media who support some of the same causes.

You never know where good ideas might come from. So if I’m working for a manufacturer, I want to know more about being a machinist. In banking, I want to know how the market affects various business sectors or when to get a loan. In politics, I want to know how to capture, motivate, and retain volunteers for a grass roots campaign. In social media, understanding some technology is as important as knowing something about venture capitalists. And so on, and so forth.

The point: while you might be able to survive in a confined industry ecosystem for awhile, you have to step outside of it sooner or later. Too much specialization, while it might seem to be asset, will eventually limit your ability to survive. Besides all that, the best ideas often come from where you least expect it — people who know little about what you do but are impacted by it often.

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Monday, February 4

Missing Targets: Target PR


Last week, the public relations department at Target learned something about new media: it’s interconnected with old media (if there is such a thing anymore) and the links and lines between the two are not always clear.

The New York Times followed up on a post by ShapingYouth, a blog about the impact of marketing on children. The apparent conflict arose over an advertising campaign that has been criticized, as The New York Times describes it, because it “depicted a woman splayed across a big target pattern — the retailer’s emblem — with the bull’s-eye at her crotch.”

Personally, I never made the connection. But there are plenty of advertising folks and consumers who did.

But this post really isn’t about that, despite having years of research that relates to sexually suggestive advertising as well as cognitive thinking by consumers. Nor is it really about ShapingYouth author Amy Jussel’s approach to contacting Target or Target’s ill-advised response, given that it wasn’t even true.

“Unfortunately we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with nontraditional media outlets … This practice is in place to allow us to focus on publications that reach our core guest.”

There are a number of public relations and social media-related blogs that have already weighed in on the subject, most of them recognizing that Target may not have needed to respond to Jussel’s aggressively assumptive inquiry, but delivered an inappropriate response. Here’s a sampling:

“So, let the lesson be loud and clear: Bloggers are media too!” — Speak Media

“…despite the ridiculous sentiments of Jussel, Target’s response was even more out-of-line.” — The PR News Blog

“In an ideal world, PR pros should always strive to enter into a conversation with any journalist that submits a reasonably legitimate media query. In reality, however, it's not scalable to offer the same level of responsiveness across the board.” — The Flack

Answering Social Media Inquiries Is A Function Of Public Relations

While scalability to address social media seems to be an issue for many public relations departments (even at larger companies like Target, apparently), it doesn’t make sense to me that any company would dismiss a blogger’s inquiry given that they wouldn’t dismiss the same inquiry by an average customer. And therein lies the real rub.

Companies are becoming too hung up on a definition of “blogger” as a noun and not considering that “blogging” is best described as a verb. Unfortunately, when it is applied as a noun, everyone gets a bit wacky and dismisses all the other nouns that might apply.

Case in point: Jussel is not only a blogger, she is also a consumer advocate and Target customer. I doubt Target would have dismissed either of these definitions as readily as they dismissed Jussel as a blogger, regardless of her approach.

Jussel is not alone. Most “bloggers” have multiple labels that emblazon their name badges. (I have several dozen; take your pick.) Let’s consider that.

Some bloggers are journalists; some are not. Some demonstrate at least some semblance of being one, even if it is more op-ed commentary as opposed to objective reporting; some do not. Some want to be engaged by companies; some do not. Some … well, you get the point. But among all these titles and monikers and definitions and styles, there is one thing every company must consider.

All bloggers are consumers and possibly customers. Period.

Given that most companies would not brush off consumers the same way — “We are unable to respond to your inquiry because we do not address the concerns of customers because it’s not scalable to offer the same level of responsiveness across the board.” EGAD! — it doesn’t make sense that a public relations department would brush off bloggers, consumers who may publicly write about it.

So what’s the solution? Pretty simple, really. At minimum, even if the company has some erroneous anti-blogger policy, public relations departments need to be able to identify who is making the inquiry and then route the call to the appropriate department if the appropriate department is not public relations.

That’s not a social media policy. It’s common sense.

And if Target had applied even some semblance of it, they may looked like heroes instead of something else. It takes far fewer words and follow up to simply send out something along the lines of … “Thank you for your inquiry. The advertisement is not meant to be sexually suggestive. However, we have forwarded your concern to our [insert department].”

Sure, as a 3-second solution, it’s not perfect. But then again, I wasn’t shooting to be interviewed by The New York Times or irritating several thousand customers. I was simply considering what the lowest level of response might be, assuming the company wants to pretend that social media doesn’t exist.

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Friday, February 1

Defining Convergence: Advertising - Entertainment Crossover


"The reality of it is that the future does not fit into the containers of the past.” — Rishad Tobaccowala, CEO of Denuo Group, a Publicis Groupe

According to Ad Age, Tobaccowala said it’s time for marketers to drop the idea that they can authoritatively distribute promotional messages by traditional means and get their heads around the notion that they must create content where audiences can migrate. As an example, he points to Nestle’s Purina, which has moved well beyond the static content that was once associated with a Web site. It includes user-generated content too.

Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that traditional advertising is dead, social media, interactivity, and consumer participation is becoming part of what will become a very changed communication landscape. And it’s not just about what marketers can do, it’s also about how the entire media landscape is changing.

Broadcast industry growth is mostly flat, enough so that local stations are looking elsewhere for content distribution. (I’ve mentioned several times: local station viewership of truncated segments online is outpacing the broadcast news product.) The New York Times noted today that some stations are not only creating original programming, but also purchasing the online rights to syndicated shows.

“I have seen local broadcasters move from looking at their Web sites as cost centers to looking at them as profit centers,” said Adam Gordon, the chief revenue officer of WorldNow. “It has taken time to get ad agencies to shift their attitudes and habits.”

The article speculates that if it works, local affiliates may play the same role online that they do on television, in which they buy the rights to programming from producers. But what the article does not say is what seems to be — both sides are playing to the middle. Convergence.

Convergence means producers having an equal opportunity to have their shows picked up by a company or distribution channel that may or may not be advertising supported. In some cases, companies might even produce some original content, with the option to syndicate it and/or sell downloads.

Sure, we all know that was along the lines of the lackluster debut of Bud.tv. It was too much too soon and without a clear focus or real understanding of their consumers (um, shows about beer might have worked) with additional damage caused by placing the entire concept in a lock box.

On the contrary, while Bud.tv traffic continues to drop, one of its debut shows, the sci-fi computer generated “Afterworld,” continues to gain a larger audience on its own. Whether you like it or not, a show like this is an asset with the potential to move beyond Google ads — sponsorship, syndication, product placement, pay-per-download, etc.

With such a variety of options available, shows like Journeyman and Jericho will be less likely to face cancellation as much as distribution shifts, provided they have a viable audience. Based on the Jericho’s Feb. 12 download buzz alone, there is obviously an audience. Anywhere there is an audience, there are advertisers.

The only thing missing from the mix is the realization that the past containers don’t work anymore for marketers, for advertisers, for producers, or networks.

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Thursday, January 31

E-Mailing Everybody: Marketers Say Spam Works


Forget Facebook and other online advertising models for a minute. Datran Media released a study that says direct-to-consumer e-mail spam works.

More than 82 percent of the marketers surveyed indicated that they plan to increase e-mail marketing this year. That’s a whole lot of e-mails.

Why? As much as everybody complains about e-mail advertising, it seems to work. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) even released a report that says e-mail ROI can hit as much as $45.65 on every dollar spent, which is twice as much ROI earned from other mediums.

This study mirrors other industry specific releases sent out by the DMA, including one that predicted e-mail from the insurance industry will increase as much as 23.4 percent in the next few years. The insurance industry is not alone. E-mail advertising has become a red-hot choice among marketers nationwide.

Except. There are some things working against e-mail ROI. There is the increasing pressure on state legislatures by the public. There are the issues that cross over into the Federal Trade Commission’s consideration of online advertising. And, of course, there is the growing problem of over saturation.

Simply put, the more e-mail advertisements that consumers receive, the less effective the medium will become and the more likely it will be prone to stricter regulation. There are other considerations too, including that the DMA study on ROI in terms of dollars does not adequately consider long-term brand consequences or negative impressions. It also doesn’t consider the risks that more consumers associate with it.

Like most advertising and communication, direct e-mail advertising is a tool. It does not work for all companies or products, and can even be detrimental for some. Inc. recently published a great column that helps temper the hype and brings it back into focus.

Personally, before considering an e-mail campaign, I think many companies are better off thinking about a well-executed social media plan. Social media can be equally, if not more, effective because it allows the consumer to receive information when they want it and how they want it: RSS feed, e-mail subscription, social network announcement, Google search, etc.

Sure, social media, such as a blog, is considered passive by comparison. But then again, the communication doesn’t rely exclusively on an e-mail list either. In other words, while more than 70 percent of marketers said they intend to use e-mail to enhance consumer relationships, one wonders if consumers share their point of view.

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