Saturday, November 15

Killing Communication: CafePress

In what can only be described as a panicked reaction to an Associated Press story (and perhaps a cease-and-desist letter), placed a hold on and/or removed all merchandise bearing the likeness of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The AP story, which appeared in hundreds of newspapers, reports how the family of Martin Luther King, Jr. is demanding proceeds from the sudden wave of T-shirts, posters and other merchandise depicting the civil rights leader alongside President-Elect Barack Obama (and not alongside Obama for that matter).

CafePress members weren't notified with such a specific reason. Instead, CafePress simply sent a message with its prewritten policy rhetoric: "We recently learned that your account contains material which may not be in compliance with our policies."

As this wasn't the first time I've had to provide expressed documented permission to CafePress over its "hold first, ask later" policy, I e-mailed a brief message back outlining how we have permission for the usage. Doing so usually generates a ticket code and assigns you a "content usage associate," who tends to be a bit more attentive than a form letter. Not today.

Your use of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s likeness may violate his right of publicity. As outlined in our Intellectual Property Rights FAQ's, the Right of Publicity clause makes it unlawful to use another's identity for commercial advantage without permission.

Except, our use of Dr. King's likeness was not employed without permission. Our use of his likeness was in cooperation with the Corporation for National & Community Service and the Points of Light Foundation for the Volunteer Center of Southern Nevada in celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. "Day of Service." Affiliated centers, such as the Volunteer Center of Southern Nevada, were granted rights to use the image as part of a public service campaign, which is posted here. Our company receives no commercial advantage and confined such usage to the "Day Of Service" image.

Thank you for contacting! I apologize but it is not in our power to restore your images and host them on our site at this time. The only way we can do so, is if you obtain an authorization for commercial resale from his family.

When a company ceases two-way communication with a customer, it's time to consider another company. So while we always appreciated better print quality on paper items, it might be time to consider alternatives prior to an upcoming facelift on an experimental blog and on-demand store.

I might be wrong, but I do not believe for one minute that The King Center meant to block an approved national public service campaign that endears a prolific civil rights leader to a people. And if I am wrong, I will reluctantly start finding another Republican to write about every January.

So how could CafePress have handled this crisis communication issue? More on Monday.

Friday, November 14

Entering Social Media: A Book Store Example

Demonstrating the general validity of social media is easy; applying it to small business is case specific.

After coming away from what became an hour-long presentation and discussion about social media with the Southern Nevada Chapter of SCORE, a resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration, I believe the above statement has never been more true. The buzz about social media is overshadowing its practicality as a viable communication tool. The remedy is a reminder that simple beats social.

What if an independent book store wanted to add social media to its marketing mix?

The existing mantra — find people who read/sell books online, listen to them, join their conversation, inflate your presence, and become an expert — falls short in terms of answering the most basic of questions … "to what end?" For small business, it's always better to consider social media especially as a communication tool that augments other marketing efforts rather than as a manifesto of magic beans. Using an independent book store as an example, here are ten basic considerations in adding social media, specifically a blog, to the communication mix.

1. Assess the business. On the front end, never mind listening to other people as social media experts recommend. Like any business, the book store needs to determine its value proposition, unique selling point, core message, or whatever else it might employ to help determine how it differentiates itself in the marketplace. While the message will evolve over time, all companies need to start somewhere.

2. Define the marketplace. Unless the book store is considering an overtly lofty goal to knock off Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell's, or AbeBooks, the marketplace is not defined as the entire world. Most brick and mortar stores need to think about proximity — the radius surrounding any retail establishment. Not only are people who live in close proximity the most likely customers, they are also those people who are critical to achieving brand dominance, which is partly defined by a 90 percent awareness within the establishment's proximity.

3. Determine The Voice(s). Before starting a blog, the book store would need to identify and determine who the voice(s) will be. With the exception of basic communication and announcements, individual voices tend to work best. It could be the owner, manager, or any number of staff as guest posters. Just keep in mind that the voice(s) need to be chosen like any spokesperson — with extreme care.

4. Bring An Audience Online. Never mind looking for people online. Try looking and listening to the people who are already in your store! They are your customers and, very often, the best online promotion is done offline. Even in-store fliers tucked inside book bags as they leave might be all it takes to introduce them to the store's blog, providing an opportunity to engage existing customers when they don't have time to visit in person.

5. Differentiate The Communication. Before starting a blog, determine what communication assets might best lend themselves to the audience without adding to the noise. Almost every company or individual has a unique voice or perspective, but the most successful online communication efforts also find common ground between a value proposition and the conversations already taking place.

6. Original Content Is King. Original content remains the king of online communication. Book reviews (especially those that are missed by the mainstream media), book signings, special promotions, rare titles, and author interviews are just a few content ideas that no other book store could provide. Local, independent stores (or even local stores that belong to the big chains), also have an opportunity to identify and promote lesser known local talents. Over time, this may help develop a secondary audience that exists only online, but never lose sight of those primary customers — those folks who come in once every two weeks or so.

7. Don't Drink The Kool-Aid. The biggest mistake being made in social media today is reinforcing the idea that the bigger the buzz, the better the communication. Almost every online measure reinforces this idea with "reach, reach, reach" being heralded as the new "location, location, location." Baloney. No one needs to reach all the people. They only need to reach the right people. Complementing that misconception is the other mistake that leads people to be trapped by industry bubbles: while it may be beneficial to share ideas with other book store owners, they are not your customers and they don't know your customers. Never forget that.

8. Expand The Online Presence. As a book store establishes its online presence, then it might be worthwhile to explore other social media options. Since there are so many social networks, it becomes critical to pick the right ones where the target audience is most likely to be, not simply the most popular ones. One of several reasons I frequently advise a blog as the most appropriate starting block is because it provides a useful home base, allowing future social media connections an opportunity to learn more about what the individual or the store is about.

9. Evolve With Opportunities. As the book store establishes its presence, other opportunities might present themselves. As long as those opportunities are consistent with the original core services established by the owner, it might make sense to pursue them. Of course, sometimes those opportunities fall outside the boundaries of success. For example, someone contacted me yesterday to discuss writing a pilot for a network television show and we set an appointment. Someone also contacted me yesterday to serve as their literary agent. I understand the work, but I'm not a literary agent so I declined. I also can deliver pizzas, but I'm not likely to add that to our services anytime soon.

10. Outcomes Determine Success. Outcomes do not have to be merely measured by sales alone. Outcomes could be as simple as a book store owner never hearing a customer say wish they had heard about a book signing that took place the week before. It all depends on how you define outcomes on the front end.

See? Demonstrating the general validity of social media is easy; applying it to small business is case specific. Simply put, these considerations were drawn from some basic tenets of strategic communication and not a social media manifesto. The difference might seem subtle at times, but the approaches, objectives, and results are vastly different. Always keep that in mind.


Thursday, November 13

Playing With Puppets: Coppola And Scion

Scion, created by Toyota to target Generation Y consumers, is about to enter into a living case study that may help answer the question: is Internet buzz enough? The answer is all but predetermined.

While Adrian Si, interactive manager for Scion, told AdvertisingAge that Roman Coppola’s kung-fu-fighting puppets will "resonate with our audience and stay true to the culture of the brand," it’s much more likely the guerrilla marketing-only campaign will be exactly what it sounds like — the “fist of oblivion.” Emphasis on “oblivion.”

As much as brand entertainment might be a boon in the future, Scion has an uphill battle. Its sales are down almost 40 percent in October, compared to the 32 percent plummet across the entire industry. It’s difficult to think that kung-fu puppets, devoid of any value proposition, can change that trend.

It also demonstrates one of the money pitfalls associated with Internet marketing, advertainment, and social media as Scion seems to be promoting a show instead of its product. (I thought we already learned that lesson with, but it seems more people want to learn the hard way.)

The Scion Challenge

According to the article, Jesse Toprak, executive director of industry analysis for, empty-niche syndrome is the biggest problem. He told AdAge the “fundamental issue facing Scion is that it is perceived as a niche brand, not a household name." While he is partly right, he's also wrong.

The fundamental problem with Scion is that it is devoid of promoting its unique selling point (even though it has several) and something much worse. Toyota dealerships are reluctant to back the brand.

I know because I was commissioned on a work on a Toyota dealership when Scion was first coming onto the scene in 2003. After presenting an 80-20 budget split, the dealership owner developed a twitch.

“We’re a Toyota dealership,” he told us. “Why on earth would we want to dilute our local marketing budget with another brand, especially one without national brand backing? No, no, if they [consumers] happen to come in looking for one, we’ll sell them one ... but only if we can't covert them to a Toyota.”

Never mind that it was our job to introduce Scion to the local market, much like we introduced the Convertible Beetle and Touareg for Volkswagen. Looking back, I personally thought the local campaign budget needed to be flipped, at least on the front end introduction.

Saturating the local market with Scion advertising would have broken through while the national Toyota campaigns could have taken care of that brand. It wasn't all that different from the model we employed for Volkswagen: push the Convertible Beetle and Touareg because Jetta and Passat buyers were already coming in to buy.

Then again, why bother with logic when you can present kung-fu puppets by Coppola? Why bother when you can force consumers to sit through one full minute introduction only to discover that the puppets don’t even drive Scions? They drive motorcycles.

Add it all up and this campaign may generate a little bit of buzz about the advertainment series and perhaps the overproduced Web site that is a little harder to navigate and sports the same droning car descriptions that you can find from any dealer on the planet. But sell a car? Um, we'll see.


Wednesday, November 12

Applying Twitter: How It Works For Business

Twitter — an online presence application that has been called anything and everything from microblog and social network to the ultimate time waster — describes itself a "real-time short messaging service that works over multiple networks and devices." The latter is about right.

Of course, I've also likened this presence application to non-linear chat (in that you can respond to people in real-time or several hours after the fact) across multiple networks. It's not the perfect definition. But as Web producer Eric Berlin, frames it up better: "the 'best thing' about twitter is that there are a lot of best things, remarkably flexible service."

Is it so flexible that it translates into a business communication tactic?

Hmmm ... it depends. It can, because it already does. But if you simply use it to as a tool to inflate the illusion of popularity as Guy Kawasaki of all people recently advised, you'll likely end up spinning your wheels and wasting your time. (Pretend to have relationships with people you don't know? Come on Guy ... that suggestion truly flies in the face of operating with authenticity).

Aaron Uhrmacher does a much better job keeping it real. Twitter can be applied as a tactic to the communication strategy of a business, depending on the company and whether or not the people it wants to reach exist there. While there are other ways to use it, including for real time reporting, there seems to be six prevailing external communication approaches.

1. Individual Participation. The most common participation is simple enough: an individual from an organization, but not necessarily representing the organization, happens to participate on Twitter. People like Geoff Livingston, Ike Pigott, Bill Sledzik, Christy Season, myself, and many others, would all fall into this category. If there is any business benefit, it's accidental and ancillary to another intent. For businesses, it's always smart to have some semblance of a social media policy when employees are engaged online.

2. Representative Participation. The second most common participation is similar to the first: an individual from an organization, who is present and primarily represents the organization. Allan Sabo, Shashi Bellamkonda, Ann Handley, David Meerman Scott, and Robert Scoble might fall into this category. While some participate just like individuals, they also represent their companies or themselves as authors and consultants. For businesses beyond the individual professional or personality, representatives are best chosen much like spokespeople — with extreme care.

3. Group Participation. While there are many examples, Zappos, Forrester, and Cisco have all established a company hub with several representative participants, each with their own voice. For some businesses, it seems to work. However, organizations that employ group participation (many employee accounts) need to remember that it only works when the tactic is backed by a strong internal communication plan. Without one, the company could dilute its message or even contradict its position.

4. Brand Characters. Not all characters are always representative of the organization, but some are, like Ms. Green. Others have been assumed by loosely related sites like Captain Picard and, perhaps, Mia Cross. While it might be an entertaining way to establish presence, it's hard to imagine someone developing a real relationship with a fictional character or every company developing a fictional spokesperson to represent the organization.

5. Brand Presence. The media was one of the first to adopt a push communication model on Twitter, with The New York Times and CNN being among the first. Primarily, news organizations feed headlines and breaking news, sometimes with links, which does add value for people who want an easy way to track the news. Some organizations do it too, including Woot, Engadget, and the Los Angeles Fire Department.

While the model dispels the myth that all social media is about a conversation, brand presence works well enough, provided the organization is large enough to have its own following (or maybe open to internal communication made public).

6. Brand Participation. Other companies and organizations attempt to blend representative participation and brand presence like Jet Blue, Q1Labs, GM, and Starbucks. While it works, it's also kind of weird. The basic concept is that the company brand is monitored by any number of faceless online team members who push communication and engage the community.

Weirder, some social media "experts" praise companies for the practice because it proves to them that companies take Twitter seriously despite the fact that these same "experts" denounce the concept daily with theoretical rhetoric that everyone needs to be genuine online. (I'm not speaking against the brand participation idea. I'm just pointing out one of the growing number of irritating inconsistencies among some "experts.")

So what it the bottom line for business on Twitter?

Like all social media tools, it's best to put the communication strategy before the tactics. Assuming a social media tool like Twitter has some value to the business, organizations are best served when they balance their objectives with an ability to lend valuable insights or information to conversations that are already taking place on that service. A real estate agent or broker with inside industry or market knowledge, for example, fits the bill.

In most cases however, it starts with an individual or company blog and then expands to include any number of social networks where the people they want to reach already participate. For example, Twitter participants drink Starbucks coffee so it makes sense for Starbucks to be there. While my communication colleagues sometimes cringe when I mention business objectives and outcomes, there has to be some tactical measure or the company will simply be investing time and money that is best spent elsewhere like within the communities they operate. Seriously, a shotgun "join every social network" approach will fail.

Here are some other voices on the subject of Twitter for business. Just be careful not to drink not the "Kool-Aid," or "Cool-Aid" as I like to call it.

Twitter With A Testimonial From 37 Signals
Twitter: The Next Small Thing for Business?
11 Reasons To Use Twitter For Business


Tuesday, November 11

Understanding ROI: U.S. Vets

While many social media experts and communicators tend to think "sales" anytime someone mentions return on investment (ROI), serving as a state commissioner for Nevada Volunteers (formerly Nevada Commission for National & Community Service, Inc.), provides a different perspective. Return on investment doesn't always mean profit margins; it means outcomes.

U.S. Vets On Veterans Day

U.S. Vets, one of several AmeriCorps-supported programs administered by this commission in Nevada, provides safe, sober, clinically supported housing and employment assistance to help rehabilitate homeless veterans. Here in Nevada, U.S. Vets helps more than 750 veterans transition from being homeless to self-sufficient every year.

They accomplish this by initiating contact with homeless veterans; providing a needs assessment; relocating them to transitionary housing, offering legal services, life skills, family support, job training, and full-time employment. I've spoken with and interviewed many graduates of the U.S. Vets over the last six years I've served as a commissioner.

From Nevada's perspective, every dollar the state invests is matched with the equivalent of about $10 in federal funding, one of the highest returns on investment for any non-profit organization in the state. Amazingly, although it would be enough, U.S. Vets is not the only AmeriCorps program to benefit.

Outcomes from various programs include: the reforestation and the reduction of fire hazards across hundreds of acres near rural communities, educational assistance to hundreds of at-risk students who increased their proficiency by two grade levels, and delivering thousands of residents medical case management and badly needed food. There's more, but the point is significant. ROI is about outcomes.

ROI is about a plumber who visited my home a few years ago. As he was passing back and forth from his van to my sink, he noticed President Bush on television and smiled.

"I know a lot of people who don't like him, but I do because he supports AmeriCorps," he said. "Without AmeriCorps, I would still be homeless, but now I have a full-time job and am graduating to move into my own apartment next week."

As you might expect, we talked for some time as he shared how he came to be homeless and how U.S. Vets helped him restart his life. I shared with him how AmeriCorps occasionally becomes a political football, but how it's also one of the most efficient bipartisan programs in the country. Originally, AmeriCorps was brought into existence by President Bill Clinton and later saved by President Bush through his Call To Service (and now highlighted on President-Elect Obama's transitional Web site. Why? Because of individual success stories just like this.

My Son On Veterans Day

His story also reminds me of something else today. The people who serve as AmeriCorps volunteers all over our country are inspiring Americans because they demonstrate how Americans do not have to be "forced to be generous" as I heard one politician recently claim. On the contrary, they only need to be engaged.

Today, my son became engaged after learning about the Adopt A Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine program organized by Soldiers' Angels. For the next six months, he will write a serviceman or servicewoman stationed abroad, sending a card or letter each week and care packages once or twice a month. It might not seem like much, but it's an important self-chosen step for a 9-year-old to take in developing what may one day become a legacy of service, inspired by our veterans and servicemen and women. And that too is ROI.

For our veterans, thank you and bless you.


Monday, November 10

Communicating Need: Bloggers Unite For Refugees

In Iraq, it’s people like 29-year-old television producer Alaa, who covered the trial of Saddam Hussein and was then forced to flee his country and escape to Stockholm, Sweden. He is one of the more fortunate. More than 2 million Iraqis have left Iraq since 2003 and more than 1.6 million are still displaced in their own country with fears that the United States will pull out too soon.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s the tens of thousands of men, women, and children, some 50,000 of which were even forced to flee refugee camps before they were leveled. Almost none of them has basic needs like food, clean water, or blankets.

In Thailand and Laos, it’s Hmong and Laotian refugees who fled and hid from the government of Laos, which had previously captured them, sent them to jail, or sometimes killed them. Some still struggle after more than 20 years, even if they themselves survived.

All over the world, it’s the estimated 40 million who are not only living without a home, but without a country — many of whom live with the fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion.

“They beat me every time I made a mistake. They beat me with their hands and feet. They beat me with metal bars …” said Awng Seng, who ran away from the military in Myanmar and became a slave in Thailand. “They would throw pieces of chain at me ... there would be blood all over.”

And others — unlike Seng or Alaa or Lopez Lomong (a refugee who went on to make the U.S. Olympic team) — are people without homes, voices, or even hope. Their stories will never be told.

Bloggers Unite For Refugees: The Butterfly Effect

Almost every time Bloggers Unite encourages bloggers to take action and blog for good based upon input from 150,000 BlogCatalog members around the world, some people surface to question the validity of such calls for action — asking what good it does to ask people to post. Inevitably, a few even take it further and suggest that when people write about a cause, somehow that it endows bloggers with a false sense of making a contribution where more direct and tangible contributions are needed.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Awareness is always the first step toward change; the second is acceptance and the third is action. And often times, what starts as a simple post has an effect that eventually touches hundreds, thousands, or millions of lives in ways that can never be counted or imagined. But even if it only touches one, who are we to dismiss the impact?

“Who helps a cause they have never heard about?” asks Antony Berkman, president of “The measure isn’t about the length of a post or even the number of posts … it's in the ability to reach people who have never considered the subjects that bloggers want to write about. I say let them.”

Berkman is right. No single person can be asked to save the world any more than one person at a time. And as long as some cause marketers continue to communicate tasks that are devoid of choice, overcomplicated in execution, or seemingly uphill or impossible, they leave the people they touch not inspired but feeling defeated in that they can never give enough.

On the contrary, throughout history, it has always been when individuals move against the majority of complicity that action takes hold. We saw it last year in America when the Senate passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, a crucial first step in addressing the needs of millions of Iraqi refugees. We saw it earlier this year when Bloggers Unite and Amnesty International brought attention and inspired action across several Human Rights issues.

And, we see it now from those who write letters to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, asking him to assist the more than 70,000 refugees from Myanmar. Or, perhaps, we can see it now by making a small donation to Refugees International, which is currently focused on the DR Congo. Or perhaps, we can see it today as more than 12,000 bloggers (and counting) make the individual choice to lend their voice and bring awareness to the plight of refugees.

It is in these ways that individual volunteer awareness and action makes a difference. The alternative is silence. Does it work? It works, even if it only works one person at a time.


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