Monday, August 3

Evolving Businesses: Copywrite, Ink. Turns 18

Reading the comments filed after Umair Haque's post The Value Every Business Needs to Create (hat tip: Valeria Maltoni) is a real treat.

Some people get it as a new definition of corporate responsibility and societal sustainability. Some people do not out of a cross between practicality and complacency. The answer, as always, is somewhere in between.

Haque is director of the Havas Media Lab and his work appears at Harvard Business Publishing. I read his stuff from time to time because he tends to ask "why not" more often than "why." But I have to admit I don't read his work faithfully because sometimes it reads as the continuous gauntlet being thrown down at private sector business. There is nothing wrong with that; someone needs to do it. Wingnuts often provide solutions even if you don't agree with the more uncompromising solutions.

He's right in that, as a whole, "health care industry profits, but Americans get poor health care. Automakers fought tooth and nail against making sustainably powered cars. Manufacturers of all stripes stay mum about environmental costs. Clothing companies can't break up with sweatshop labour." Etc. Add to that public relations firms, as a whole, have become complacent, weaving in the same old tired buzz words into poorly targeted, mass distributed news releases. (TechCrunch ought to add "leading company" to the list.)

His uncompromising position is still a bitter pill for many to entertain on a regular basis because businesses would give these things to Americans if Americans would be prepared to pay for the early adoption portion prior to mass distribution, much like they were willing to pay for flat screen televisions. Mostly, we aren't. Often, it takes an atrocity, tragedy, or visionary investment to shock the existing system enough to elevate something better. Otherwise, change happens in tiny drips.

Copywrite, Ink. Turns 18

Understanding this is the primary reason our company is turning 18 years old this month whereas so many others (including firms that used to be among the top agencies in the state) closed their doors. Most played systems that worked until they played out. Others tried to force innovations that no one wanted. A few adopted the language (integrated communication, for example) but not the meaning behind the words, cheapening the entire concept.

We're a bit different in that while we have all the skill sets available to transform floundering communication plans (and sometimes the aging operations to go with them) into winners, we don't begrudge those who want their point of entry to be the same old. In other words, we know a start-up company would be better off developing a core message before a logo, but there is no need to talk ourselves out of the relationship. (Not every date is ready to talk about kids before the first kiss.)

Politics is very much like that. As unfortunate as it is, politics requires politicians to sacrifice some tenets in order to get in the door. It used to be a path of compromise; nowadays, for many of them, it's better described as submission. As the first campaign manager we ever worked with once said, "change is great and necessary, but you cannot enact change until you get elected."

Business communication is very much like that too. You cannot prove your performance until you're working on the account. Change is much easier to enact from the inside out, which is how our company evolved to provide five services with agencies or companies able to customize the services they needed from us.

Ideally, we'd often do it differently, but there are just too many people who will say something requires too much heavy lifting. Usually, it doesn't. It only seems like it does because, for the person making that claim, it might be very heavy indeed.

As much as we'll enter where our client would like us to, Copywrite, Ink. continues to find new ways to evolve from its early entry as a writing services firm in 1991 (at a time when there was no such business). From there, we've added services such as creative direction (1996), strategic direction (1999), social media (2003), and opposition and market research (2006). In sum, we provide any number of single services or deeper than traditional full service, depending on client need.

What's next? There is always something in the works. But for now, we just decided it was time to provide our clients, colleagues, and friends a high-touch thank you and an invitation for a cup of tea. It makes sense to me. For all the talk of technology and employees being told of takeovers via tweet links, nothing beats the occasional face to face.

And what about your company? Is it running thin on value or thinking thick to keep pace with a world that promises to look very different? While we're always happy to chat with anyone to fill niche needs, we're especially interested in sitting down to discuss the real definition of integrated communication.

Friday, July 31

Avoiding Business Traps: Harvard Business Publishing

The author of one cool site: blogging tips recently re-asked a question that many people have been asking: is mainstream media losing significance?

Under the current business model most traditional publications operate under, you bet. But it doesn't mean they'll go away. Publishers will eventually evolve and develop different business models. Long term, it is anyone's guess what these business models will look like, and chances are many of them will be different.

Some might evolve in networks like Michael Milken recently invested in. Milken is banking on the idea that Bizmore might be the better business model. The potential success of the site will likely hinge on how good the advice is. For example, one executive asked "How often should we change advertising campaigns?" And another executive answered "I'd recommend testing new/alternative campaigns continuously, via smaller campaigns in different magazines, geographies, outlets or via paid search online."

In that case, it's the wrong advice, prompted by the wrong question. And, unfortunately, this is the wrong post to cover it. Bum advice aside, the concept might be sound. It seems fewer executives are satisfied with the research culled by traditional publications these days; they need to know what it means and what to do with it.

Another emerging model (that some research firms have already adopted), which I offered up to Jay Ehret for his open letter to the Waco Tribune Herald, is to keep the summary information free and charge for the deeper research. The only burden that remains is proving content that has value.

To illustrate, I purchased an article on Harvard Business Review this morning. It's an older article (circa 1998), but meets the criteria: it's purchased content and provides some answers that newspaper people, who do not always operate as businessmen, might consider. (I skew my summaries for newspapers, but the traps apply to all business.)

The Hidden Traps In Decision Making

• Anchoring Traps. Business leaders have been struggling with this all the time. The most common problem is placing too much emphasis on past performance without considering other factors.

Newspapers certainly fell into this trap. As subscriptions shrank, they increased their direct mail programs and trial discount offers. It worked before, but now all it did was reduce the non-existent profit margin on subscriptions even more.

• The Status Quo Trap. The article points to newspapers as an example, as the majority of the “electronic newspapers” that first appeared on the Internet were modeled after their print precursors. They didn't need to be, but nobody really considered that they could be anything else.

Status quo suggested they be the same, as if people who looked for content online would be looking for the same content they found offline. Unfortunately, the status quo thinking trapped papers into offering virtually the same product for free.

• The Sunk-Cost Trap. The article uses the example of being given a stock or having a stock that we refuse to sell, even if it is for a loss, and thereby miss out on more attractive investments.

Fundamentally, this where many newspapers are now. They are desperately trying to "save" their old business model despite the fact that the business model no longer works.

• The Confirming-Evidence Trap. While the authors could have never guessed it at the time, the confirming evidence trap is trending up in popularity. In February, I called it validating opinion, but it's much the same.

Not only are publishers demonstrating an increasing propensity to validate reader opinions, but many are attempting to build future business models based on finding examples that may support their vision. Nowadays, it's easy to do.

• The Framing Trap. The framing trap refers to one of the most common mistakes made in business. People ask the wrong questions. In fact, it's the very reason the Q&A advice on Bizmore was flawed. It was the wrong question. It's also one I've answered before.

Some newspapers are asking the wrong questions too. They keep asking how many journalists do we need to let go because online advertising revenue is only a fraction of our print revenue? It's the wrong question. Instead, they might ask which assets have a demonstrated value that people might actually pay for or advertisers might want to be associated with.

• Estimating and Forecasting Traps. The article explains this trap as problematic because most of our minds are not calibrated for making estimates in the face of uncertainty. There seems to be some truth to that given the number of companies that inexplicably opted to try and wait out the economic downturn (as if).

The article breaks it down further into terms I learned from philosophy rather than business. People who get into accidents the most tend to be overly cautious or overly confident. For business, it's the same. The article goes a step further by suggesting even people in the middle are at risk if they always assume the past can accurately help us forecast the future. It cannot.

Of the above mentioned traps, I'm not sure if this one applies to newspapers as much as some of the new models that are being tested by people like Milken. Case in point: Milken's past success combined with the past success of similar Q&A networks that have seemed successful on Linkedin would convince some to conclude Bizmore will be successful. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Bizmore's success will be based on an entirely different equation that has little to do with Milken or similar formats.

Bizmore Q&A aside, they do seem to have some editorial content right for them. Shorter, punchier articles play well online, and today's daily download comes from Apple.

Currently, Bizmore's traffic appears to be about the same as a multi-author average blog, with significant distance to travel before catching up with Forbes or Businessweek. But, so far, it still represents a viable next step in how content providers might evolve.

Of course, there is one last point to touch on today. Of all the sources mentioned in this post, only Harvard Business Publishing generated revenue from me. They can from you too. You can purchase this classic article by Ralph L. Keeney, Howard Raiffa, and John S. Hammond right here. Have a nice weekend.

Thursday, July 30

Debating Social Media: Deloitte

Deloitte Consulting LLP has been entering the conversation about social media in some interesting ways for some time, including, most recently, adding a brand new moniker for its online activities. Christine Cutten, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP, places social media under the banner of collaborative marketing.

Cutten's and other content is available at Deloitte Debates under the banner of customer management (it's not under collaborative marketing as the release stated). It's presented in a point, counterpoint format and includes discussions from several members inside the Deloitte team. For purposes of this post, I'll stick with the release, which includes some of Deloitte's prevailing points and follow up with a few of our own.

• Proactively manage your collaboration strategy. Cutten suggests to be effective, you'll need dedicated resources responsible for managing your collaboration strategy, keeping up with the important trends, and making careful choices about where to engage. Sound advice.

Less sound is the suggestion to invest in building a presence wherever high-impact discussions are happening. The investment needs to be made where your customers are. The concept to consider customers first was reinforced to me the other day when I asked a colleague of mine why their organization chose MySpace over Facebook. The reason was simple enough. Despite national demographics and trends, their localized audience doesn't use Facebook; they use MySpace.

• Get serious about risk management. Cutten writes that there are some critical investments that companies cannot ignore. For employees, they suggest understandable policies, effective training, and continuous monitoring. Doing things on the fly without sufficient resources can do more harm than good. Sound advice.

The only caution in considering the above is in the definitions. Companies seem utterly confused about where monitoring employees might begin and where it might end. Companies and organizations need to be mindful in choosing internal or external spokespeople. Not everyone wants to use their social networks to market the company; and not everyone is well suited for it anyway.

• Be authentic -- but discreet -- in engagement. Establish clear engagement policies to drive consistency and mitigate your own risk. Always be honest about who you are, provide information that is helpful, and allowing insiders to share the occasional inside scoop can generate goodwill and credibility. Sound advice.

Companies needs to add a healthy dose of internal communication to the mix. In reviewing hundreds of companies with online engagement and in working with several dozen, successfully integrating employees into the communication plan seems to hinge not on external online communication but rather a corporate or organizational trust on the inside.

• Align internal processes. You can't provide fixes to problems if your marketing and engineering departments don't see eye to eye on what the problems are, or how to solve them. Sync up internal processes with virtual teams. Sound advice.

Whereas some people become concerned about controlling messages and corporate speak, we would consider the above point a clear example of message management. If you speak as a team or organization or company, it makes sense to ensure everyone is on the same page or the team will lose credibility over mixed messages.

• Build and evolve capabilities. Companies often mistake their current IT department as the answer for all things Internet: an approach that often comes up short. Roles such as Webmaster, forum monitor, bloggers, Web designers and widget developers may be necessary. Use third parties if you can't build them internally. Sound advice.

What is missing, however, are assets that companies already have on hand, internally or externally. Seasoned communicators with generalized and integrated skill sets that may include marketing, public relations, investor relations, etc. can often be the tie that binds communication functions together.

• Measure interactions. Someday, performance metrics will emerge that demonstrate the full value of collaboration marketing. But until then, it makes sense to start with basics such as site usage, page hits, and the overall tenor of the discussion. Hmmm...

Partly, but not exactly. Outcomes remain the best measure of all communication, not merely traffic or page hits. I was recently reminded of this once again when one of the blogs we administer saw visitation soar to 10,000 visitors. Did one of the posts suddenly resonate with the general public over the intended audience? No. A government worker committed suicide and someone with the same name was featured on the blog several years ago. Several bloggers had taken our interviewee's image and incorrectly assigned it to the deceased. We spent the better part of a day correcting the problem before our interviewee's family and friends heard the inaccurate news.

More to the point, however, is the simple fact that all communication can be measured. While the tenor of discussions can count, traffic and page hits are only an indication of reach. In many cases, like the mistaken identity story, it doesn't count. (Heck, host one chat session on Twitter and popular measures such as followers and re-tweets automatically inflate for no other reason.)

Overall, Deloitte's discussion is worth reading. While not all of the content and conversation demonstrates a deep understanding of the space, the fact that Deloitte considers social media, or what it calls "collaboration marketing," and has adopted it is good. The next step for many people is simply getting it right. And when it comes to social media, "right" is situational.

Wednesday, July 29

Defining Terms: Critical To Communication

I serve on the board of a nonprofit organization, and one of the conversations that continues to creep into meetings is one I've learned to stay away from. The conversation is whether or not the organization wants to retain its only public fundraising event.

On one hand, it is the organization's only public event. As such, it tends to be its most visible asset and among its most likely to be covered by the media. Those who would keep the event always point out that it is profitable, but that profit varies from year to year, depending on any number of factors that include the economic climate, auxiliary fundraising, and the location of the event. More than that, they say it has become an integral part of the organization's reputation.

On the other hand, it requires significant staff time and volunteer support. In some cases, those who would prefer to let it go generally dismiss the attendance and any profit as a measure of success. And in doing so, they generally do not consider auxiliary features that may impact the event such as whether the speaker is local or national, whether the organization hosted a silent auction, and whether media coverage has any bearing on the long-term success of the organization.

What's Missing Is A Definition

As simple as it sounds, what's missing is a definition. What constitutes a successful event? Profits? Attendance? Media coverage? Public relations (as the event benefits individuals, companies, and other nonprofits)? Without a definition, the outcome of the event (successful or not) is merely defined by each individual perspective. And that's never good.

Some people tell me (some of them students; some working professionals) that measurement in communication is optional. And yet, even beyond communication, it seems to be a critical component.

Benchmarking is important too. And so is considering any number of tactics.

Knowing these things or even asking about them can make a big difference in understanding whether it is a worthwhile asset or not. For example, we might ask what factors are contributing to or detracting from the success of the event. Do national speakers attract more attendees than local speakers? Does a silent auction add tangible value as a profit generator or, perhaps, an outreach in contacting businesses that have no other means to contribute? What about the value of the event to the community and whether or not that has any bearing on the decisions being made? What do any event sponsors think? What about visibility, branding, and reputation? Was the communication handled properly? Were all elements on time? And so on and so forth.

There are any number of questions to ask. But until they are asked and answered, no one really knows whether or not the event is successful or if it is a critical function of the organization. And unless we define success with some measure, we're not communicating as much as we're having an idle conversation about what seems to be. We might as well argue about the weather.

Unless Definitions Are Universal, Communication Becomes Idle

I don't mean universal in the global sense (unless we're talking about global issues); I merely mean universal in a stakeholder sense. For the organization, that might mean the board. For something else, that might mean a community or department. For a couple, it might mean two individuals (even though couples sometimes try to infuse outside opinion). And so on and so forth.

What makes definitions so critical?

For example, if we take something as simple as "I'd like to go to the park on the next nice day," we might have any number of varied responses on any given day on whether we ought to go to the park. Some people like it hot. Some people like it cool. Some people like moderate and partly cloudy. There are a lot of "nice days" out there, dependent solely on individual preference.

However, if we define the "nice day" with something more concrete such as "when I say a nice day, I mean about 78 degrees, moderate humidity, with a light breeze," then everyone knows when we might go to the park, even if they don't agree with the definition.

Why is that important? Because without the definition, we might find ourselves debating about whether or not to go to a park when we're actually disagreeing on the definition of a nice day. Or, we might debate whether to have an event, when we're really disagreeing about what makes an event successful. Or we might debate the varied opinions of ROI for communication, but only because we haven't even defined what ROI means, or an outcome, or whatever and whatnot.

We see the same problem with Congress right now. Congressional leaders are debating about universal health care. The hold up seems like it is about health care, but it's really because no one has offered a definition. While most people want "good, reliable, accessible health care for everyone," nobody has taken the time to define it beyond the sound bite. According to Peter Fleckenstein, here are some highlights of a working definition that differs from the sound bite.

It happens a lot in politics these days. People tend to vote on sound bites; we ought to be voting on definitions.

Developing Definitions Requires Empathy

Empathy is the capability to share and understand another's emotions and feelings. We might expand that concept to include definitions. If we can do that, then we increase the propensity to have meaningful dialogue because even if we don't agree on the definition, we can at least understand where the other person is coming from. As Steve Covey once said: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

Sure, there will be those times when we cannot accept or ever hope to understand a definition because it is, um, wacky. And in those cases, we might put our energy elsewhere. If we cannot accept a definition, then all the rest is idle chatter.

Make sense? Always start with a working definition. And if you don't think it's important, well, then have a nice day. And all the best.

Tuesday, July 28

Getting Closer: Disney Looks For Soft Spots

With more than $25 billion spent on advertising this year, most eyes are on New York as Walt Disney Company’s new research facility will unveil some early findings and suggest online ad formats to about 200 advertisers. The formats, according to The New York Times, represent layouts based on what our brains prefer, whether we click on the ads or not.

The emerging media and advertising research lab was launched in May 2008 under the direction of Prof. Duane Varan, an authority on the future of television and advertising. The lab was developed to better understand the emotional drivers of audience behavior and physiological reactions to advertising.

It will be interesting to learn how Disney data meshes with a report released by comScore last year. Its study, on behalf of Starcom and Tacoda, showed that average click rates on display ads in 2008 were less than 0.1 percent. Starcom research also suggested no correlation between display ad clicks and brand metrics, no connection between measured attitude towards a brand and the number of times an ad for that brand was clicked, and that optimizing for high click rates does not necessarily improve campaign performance.

These are some of the same reasons we've avoided some "click" measurement assignments, whereas compensation is based on clicks. All too often, consumers develop a composite of impressions over time and seek out paths to demand fulfillment that they are most comfortable with. For example, after months of being exposed to movie messages, many customers traveled to local retailers over online outlets or visited online outlets from a path different than a source link.

In The New York Times story, much of the Disney research seems to hinge on google-based eye tracking, stereoscopic camera-based eye tracking and heart rate monitoring. While the lab promises to deliver deeper findings in these areas, it would be even more interesting if the lab eventually compares such models to contextual events.

For instance, we already know that the Coca-Cola brand is strong enough to cause people to prefer it over other sodas, even when its label is placed on competing products. Thus, we'd have to conclude brand reputation may have a dramatic impact on how small of an ad or simplified of a message some brands might get away with over other brands.

Communication doesn't happen in a box. And the brain works in some very mysterious ways.

Sure, we can ask questions (as The New York Times does) whether preroll ads that play before video clips are more effective when paired with banner ads. But will we ever know if the outcomes are different depending on the brand? It's hard to say. Neuro persuasion is still one of the least understood areas in the communication field.

What we do know, however, is that the effectiveness of advertising, marketing, and communication is tied to thousands of variables, including the individual experiences of each person exposed to an advertisement. The science beyond the creative or connection (in the case of social media) is attempting to effectively touch more of a mass audience on a scale of one-to-one as possible.

For example, when customers of a resort began writing personal letters to the owner of the property in response to his direct mail letters, we knew the communication mix was right. At that point, where the coupons landed on the page seemed trivial. Whereas, prior to having the right mix, coupon placement seemed to matter a great deal. Weird, but that's how we're wired.

Monday, July 27

Translating Research: Mommy Bloggers

The results of a new national survey commissioned by Hallmark Cards, Inc. attempts to pin down one of the more increasingly elusive but always important audiences for some companies — moms. And, according to the new survey, the company discovered that moms need more encouragement from other moms to meet the day-to-day challenges of motherhood.

What Moms Are Telling Hallmark Cards, Inc.

• 84 percent of moms said they believe that sharing funny stories about their child or children with other moms helps them manage the day-to-day challenges and stress of motherhood.
• 68 percent said they share funny stories about their experiences with others as a way to handle the day-to-day challenges of motherhood.
• 75 percent said they are looking for new ways to boost their child's confidence for going back to school.

What Hallmark Cards, Inc. Offers Moms.

Hallmark Cards, Inc. translated these findings into a new greeting card product line, one they say helps moms encourage moms and moms encourage kids. While the commercials connect and the concept is sound, the cards seem one step disconnected.

Translating Research Makes A Difference.

I can't help but wonder if moms are saying they want to connect with more moms. In other words, maybe the research suggests that they want a community, which makes those cards seem like a secondary or ancillary solution.

In other words, if moms are saying they want to connect and share, meeting that need might be the priority over a product that may appeal to them once they've connected. Translating the research this way leads to several different paths to entry that range from developing a network to supporting those networks that already exist. Reading Susan Getgood's post might be a good place to start too. She lists several mommy networks that seem within reach.

Of course, any program developed out of the initial research ought not be exclusive to mommy bloggers, which is where Hallmark Cards, Inc. attempted to apply it last April. Back then, the company hosted 12 mommy bloggers at Hallmark headquarters to learn and share, among other things, ideas about the need for mom-to-mom encouragement.

The takeaway here is two-fold. How you translate data makes a difference. In this case, sometimes the path to creating new products includes developing or supporting a network where that product becomes useful. The difference is in the objective: demand creation vs. demand fulfillment.

Over the long term, I suspect Hallmark Cards, Inc. will get it right. The company has a history of listening to consumers and then translating any insights into new products and services. Now, it only needs to learn that some research doesn't translate into new products as much as it translates into the environments where such products might fit.

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