Tuesday, December 8

Being Run In Circles: Zhu Zhu Pets


Within hours after the GoodGuide, an environmental and social consumer advocacy company, issued a release that some of the hottest toys this season contained levels of antimony and chromium that exceed federal standards, the Internet lit up with with searches for Zhu Zhu Pet recall information.

Except, consumers couldn't find much credible information beyond opinion and speculation. There was no recall.

The truth was that Cepia LLC, the manufacturer of Zhu Zhu Pets, had met federal standards and stricter regulations overseas. And in response, the company immediately issued a statement that Mr. Squiggles and Zhu Zhu Pets are “absolutely safe and has passed the most rigorous testing in the toy industry for consumer health and safety.”

The statement went on to provide a detailed accounting of testing procedures, which include independent tests several times during production and again before the items are shipped from the factory. It also included CEO Russ Hornsby's personal assurances that as a father and toy maker with 35 years of experience in the toy industry, that the company not only strives to meet U.S. and European standards, but strives to exceed them.

However, even with the statement, it took two days before Zhu Zhu Pets would be exonerated, with the GoodGuide retracting its release after the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said the toy was in compliance. The discrepancy was in the testing methodology, with federal standards employing a soluble method and the GoodGuide using a surface-based method.

In one of the better accounts of the testing discrepancies, Jennifer Taggart, the founder of The Smart Mama, helped set the record straight. She points out that the U.S. standard is 60 ppm soluble antimony in paints and surface coatings used on children’s toys, not antimony as found with the Niton XRF analyzer used for testing surfaces. She goes on to conclude: "I call out greenwashing all the time. It goes both ways, you know?"

In an era of infinite information, inaccuracy spreads fast.

Even after the GoodGuide results were refuted, some news outlets still ran with the initial, erroneous release. Bloggers, unaware of the retraction, are still advising parents to think twice.

One suggested parents avoid the toy because antimony limits set today will likely be lowered tomorrow. Another suggested that because they are made in China, they are tied to impoverished and exploited people. And yet others doubted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission investigation and clearance, given that GoodGuide was once featured on Oprah and, supposedly, is conducting a more rigorous test (even though they are not).

In a summation of all the content, most opinions were wrong and most coverage, even by news outlets, were nothing more than a reactionary game of "he said, he said." Specifically, news outlets covered the allegation, the response, outside opinions, and eventual retraction with most never investing any time in researching the truth.

Antimony is not a random chemical as many inferred. While dangerous in concentrated doses, it is a metal used to meet other safety standards as a flame retardant. It is frequently added to children's clothing, toys, crib mattresses, aircraft, and automobile seat covers. It is also used in electronics, paints, rubber, ceramics, enamels, and some drugs. So while GoodGuide still maintains it is cause for concern in any amount, its presence does not mean the toys are unsafe.

Federal testing methods (soluble) consider how much of the substance could be removed by dermal, ingestion, or inhalation at 60 ppm. The GoodGuide testing methods do not. While the GoodGuide regretted the error, it hasn't come close to offering an apology to the company or consumers nor did its retraction statement mention the toys by name.

GoodGuide makes everyone run in circles for little or nothing.

The general predisposition of the public is that companies, for love of profit, are bad; consumer advocacy groups, despite being profitable, are good; and news organizations vet the facts. Sometimes, this is true. Other times, with increasingly regularity and in this case specifically, it's not.

However, with the adoption of infinite information as a model, things have changed. Here, the advocacy group sensationalized erred testing methods, which mainstream and social media helped propagate at the expense of what appears to be an honest toy manufacturer with the biggest hit of the season. The lesson here is that the quantity of information doesn't always lead to more truth but rather popular opinion regardless of the truth.

The lesson that has yet to be learned is how future public relations professionals will be taught to manage this information. By our count, most are too busy rushing to social media in the hopes of becoming client cheerleaders and influencer relationship brokers.

While Cepia LLC did a better job defending its product as safe than the GoodGuide did in in admitting it was wrong, the erred information outpaced accurate information via social media. Most news outlets have reported follow ups, but few have amended their original stories.

Incidentally, the Bakugan 7-in-1 Maxus Dragonoid and the Fisher Price Laugh & Learn Learning Farm were also included as hazardous in the original GoodGuide release, but escaped the same scrutiny.

Monday, December 7

Going Social: Inc. 500 Companies


The Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, released a new study that tracks social media usage among Inc. 500 companies. It has tracked social media adoption among Inc. 500 companies since 2007, when it noted the fastest-growing companies tended to adopt social media at a faster rate than Fortune 500 companies.

Highlights From Center for Marketing Research 2009 Study

• Social networking leads in adoption. Seventy-five percent of Inc. 500 companies are very familiar with social networking, which is up from 57 percent in 2008.

• Twitter, far and away, is among the most adopted social networking tools being adopted by Inc. 500 companies, with 75 percent saying that they are very familiar with it.

• Social media is mainstream. Forty-three percent of Inc. 500 companies consider social media important to their business, with 91 percent of Inc. 500 companies employing at least one tool in 2009.

• With the exception of Twitter, 87 percent of companies employing social media report that the tool they use has been successful for them. (Twitter returned an 82 percent success measure.) However, most companies seem to overemphasize the importance of hits and comments as successful measures.

• Blogging follows social networking, but remains well ahead of other social media tools, with 67 percent of Inc. 500 companies saying they are very familiar with blogging and 45 percent hosting at least one blog. Blogs were also among the top cited tools to be adopted by companies not currently engaged in social media.

• Message/bulletin boards, online video, podcasting, and wikis have all tapered off in interest, with less than 50 percent of Inc. 500 companies very familiar with the tools.

While adoption is high, execution is haphazard.

Despite the high adoption rate, most companies seem to be adopting social media without a communication strategy. While 87 percent use social media, only 70 percent monitor their brands, only 46 percent consider social media very important, and only 36 percent have a written employee policy. Less than 40 percent employ social media for any other communication, such as with vendors, suppliers, and partners.

Based on the study, it seems most Inc. 500 companies are adopting social media tools that are among the most reported about, with little regard to benchmarking, or establishing measures beyond reach. For the most part, Inc. 500 companies become involved in networks that enjoy the most media coverage, regardless of their audience. In contrast, more than half use social media to screen potential employees.

It is important to note that only 148 of the Inc. 500 companies participated. However, the participation rate is approximately the same as previous years, which suggests trending might be the most important aspect of the study. The full report is available online.

Earlier this year, the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, also released a benchmark review of Fortune 500 companies' blog adoption. It found 16 percent (81) of Fortune 500 companies hosted blogs, with 38 percent of those with blogs belonging to the Fortune 100.

Friday, December 4

Understanding Psychology: Three Studies For Communicators


Two psychology studies and another that was recently funded may be among the most important for communicators to consider in the years ahead. Although none of them were/are being performed for the communication industry, the outcomes of all three can further an understanding of marketing, branding, and even leadership.

Three Psychology Studies Communicators Ought To Care About.

1. Loneliness and other emotions spread. Conducted by Dr. Nicholas Christakis, Harvard University; James Fowler at the University of California, San Diego; and John Cacioppo, University of Chicago; the study relies on data from the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed more than 5,000 people in Framingham, Massachusetts, since 1948.

The Framingham Heart Study allowed the researchers to demonstrate a direct connection to relationships and loneliness. Specifically, if a direct connection in a person's network is lonely, he or she is 52 percent more likely to be lonely. At two degrees of separation, a friend of a friend who is lonely is 25 percent more likely to be lonely. At three degrees, it's 15 percent.

2. Personality can predict success in media school. Conducted by Deniz Ones, University of Minnesota; Filip Lievens, Ghent University; and Stephan Dilchert, Baruch College, CUNY; the studies indicate personality plays a major role in determining who succeeds in medical school, with energetic and sociable personalities being detrimental to early education but more important for success as the curriculum changes and internships or patient interaction became important.

While the study is being applied to the medical school admissions process (which we disagree with in practice, given the strain it places on ethics), it may also reinforce the findings of the loneliness study in that personality traits may be indicative of either being resistant to negative emotions spread by others or a catalyst for spreading positive emotions.

3. Study receives funding to find root of depression. Being led by Brandon Gibb, Binghamton University, the study will track 250 children, ages 8 to 14, to develop an understanding of variables that can lead to depression. The study is unique from the other two in that Gibb and his colleagues intend to review genetic and environmental factors.

Gibb has previously found that the teen years result in an increased risk of depression in children, especially between the ages of 13 and 18. Females are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression over males during that time, which also reinforces the first study's finding that emotions are more likely spread among women.

Six Reasons These Studies May Apply To Marketing, Branding, and Leadership.

Understanding psychology and sociology is extremely important to the long-term success of organizational communication, internally and externally. These studies stand out, in particular, given their implications across a variety communication functions.

• Branding is emotionally charged. Given that branding is best defined as the relationship between the brand and the consumer, it stands to reason that the relationship relies on the emotional connection (positive or negative feelings) that a person has about a particular product or service. Negative and positive experiences reinforce those feelings, which can then be passed on to others even if those second or third generation consumers have never had an experience.

• Fulfilled brand promises are powerful. When you look at the most successful brands in the world, the common denominator tends to be their ability to meet their brand promise. So advertising, public relations, word of mouth, and other factors all contribute to the brand promise, with the product or service fulfilling it. The further away the end experience is from that promise, the more negative that emotion is likely to be and the more likely it is to spread.

• Real influence is unseen, and not measurable. In the two completed studies, participants seemed to have no cognitive insight that their experiences were being influenced by the emotions they projected or the emotions conveyed by the people in their relationships. While social media experts tend to measure "seen" influencers (such as messages being spread), it is more likely that the greater impact of influence is unseen and directly related to outcomes.

• Organizational leadership is critical to the end consumer. Effective leadership within a company is critical in that leaders have a dual task of setting the culture of the company (positive or negative) and minimizing the spread of negative emotions that are passed from employee to employee and employee to consumer. The significance here is that negatively-charged leadership can spread throughout an internal network or online network and out to consumers.

• The spread of emotions is powerful in online networks. Carrying forward the concept to social media, it seems clear why "trolls" can be so impacting to a community. Much like loneliness spreads, a troll's general negativity can undermine the community because even if they do not "influence" actions, they can influence how people feel about the group or organization. Negatively charged social networks eventually empty.

• Marketing may sometimes be impacted by genetics. As unlikely as it seems, if the Gibb study is able to pinpoint the propensity that depression is genetic or environmental, then there may be an indirect link to a genetic predisposition to accept or spread emotions. For marketers, it could single an interesting challenge. As marketing becomes increasingly relationship driven, it may become even more important to identify and nurture brand advocates who are predisposed to spreading positive sentiment.

While the above observations only scratch the surface, the direct impact psychology plays in leadership communication, marketing messages, and brand fulfillment creates a much more robust picture of how communication intent can be enhanced or diminished before it produces an outcome. We see several areas where conceptual models could apply to real life examples, something that may be worth tackling next week.

Thursday, December 3

Mocking Tiger: Spirit Airlines & Everyone


"I think that the public is very used to it at this point, this happening, not only with athletes, but with people in general, from all walks of life. I think that infidelity is prevalent in all realms of society worldwide." — Rita Ewing

With almost everyone attempting to cash in on the Tiger Woods scandal, we almost passed until the Spirit Airlines advertisement landed on Adfreak. Saying the airline hasn't been "this inspired since holding its 'Many Islands, Low Fares' (MILF) sale," Adfreak featured the cheesy online advertisement of a tiger driving into a fire hydrant. The copy read...

"It's a jungle out there! Make sure you avoid all the obstacles and get the lowest fares."

In terms of generating publicity, the advertisement worked. In terms of selling seats, it's hard to say. However, Spirit Airlines is one of the few U.S. passenger airlines generating a net profit during the recession, despite being fined $375,000 by the Federal Aviation Administration for violating consumer protection regulations .

Tiger Woods is big business, and perhaps even bigger business in a crisis.

The Ottawa Citizen published a top ten list inspired, in part, by the buzz up from comedians Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno, George Lopez, and Wanda Sykes. It seems only David Letterman, not surprisingly, took a pass.

The same cannot be true for public relations professionals. Most of them are jumping in to rehash the classic bullet points, with the most obvious being that Woods waited too long to say anything at all. It's par for the course, they all say.

Or is it?

Sure, Ari Adler is right in that under most circumstances, crisis communication requires disclosure. Scott Soshnick is right in that a loss of privacy is often the price of being a public figure. Gerald Baron is right in his frame up of a fictional crisis communication conversation.

And yet, all three are very wrong.

In terms of personal branding, Woods is playing just below par. While this golf celebrity had gone to great lengths to preserve a certain image in the past, he has also passionately pursued keeping his personal matters out of the public spotlight. That much, at least, remains.

Woods is not Mark Sanford or Gavin Newsom or Michael Phelps or take your pick among those who demonstrated poor judgement this year.

Overall, Woods is a golfer whose image was created less by his own effort than those who wrote about him. He didn't market himself to earn endorsements; he played the game better to earn them. He didn't seek out publicity; the tabloids frequently sought him out. Nobody bought products because he 'endorsed' them; his presence merely made people more aware of them.

So if public relations professionals took a little more time to think before riding the Woods wave today, they might remember that crisis communication is situational. And this situation requires an accounting of key considerations. Here are some...

• Woods has set his priorities, and it does not include public discourse.
• Most of his sponsors support his decision, including Nike, Gatorade, and Gillette.
• It appears that the Woods family has yet to find resolution in what might come next.
• There was no risk of public health or safety in regard to a matter involving his family.
• His family has a long history of attempting to separate their private lives from public exposure.

How the Tiger Woods story could play out, depending on personal decisions.

The Tiger Woods brand will remain intact, though a little worn at the edges, provided his wife decides to work past present circumstances and if he continues to win tournaments in the aftermath of this personal crisis. It would have less chance to remain intact had he held a press conference, played victim of circumstance or ignorance, or suddenly tossed himself on the mercy of the court of public opinion. All of those options, for Woods specifically, would have been less than authentic.

Sure, there are those who are making the case that Woods is missing an opportunity to allow others to learn from his mistakes. I submit he has offered up a lesson that might help some people learn from their own mistakes. Perhaps we might even consider that transparency is a gift and not an expectation, under certain circumstances. What do you think?

"But no matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy. I realize there are some who don't share my view on that. But for me, the virtue of privacy is one that must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one's own family. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions. ... I will strive to be a better person and the husband and father that my family deserves. For all of those who have supported me over the years, I offer my profound apology." — Tiger Woods

Wednesday, December 2

Being Authentic: Demonstrated, Not Stated


One of the most common bits of advice bandied about social media is for companies entering social media to be authentic. And as a result, many marketers have listened, making the claim that they are practicing authenticity for themselves and their clients or companies. We're authentic, they say.

"What bothers me now is that every time I hear a marketing pro utter the word 'authentic,' I cringe," says Olivier Blanchard, brand strategist behind The BrandBuilder Blog. "It's become dissonant."

Dissonant indeed. Blanchard's point, punctuated by the idea that authenticity is an outcome more than a practice, not only resonates but has research to back it up.

Can companies and marketers practice authenticity?

Sam Goslin, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests the answer might be no. He and his team analyzed 236 profiles of college-age types in the U.S. and Germany (from Facebook and StudiVZ, SchuelerVZ) and then established a baseline personality assessment by sending questionnaires to the owners in order to measure actual traits that individual thought would be ideal for them.

By comparing the social network profiles with the perceived and actual personality types of their owners, Goslin's team was then able to work out if the profiles did a better job of representing the actual or idealized personality traits. According to the Fast Company article, people either weren't trying to idealize their online persona or they were trying and failing.

How to demonstrate authenticity without saying it.

A simple takeaway from the Fast Company article for individuals is that they might learn to be comfortable with who they are. The same can be said about companies, which tends to be at odds with most marketing positions as recently illustrated by Richard Pinder, chief operating officer of Publicis Worldwide in the Guardian.

"Today's marketing imperative is to manage conversations about brands," Pinder said. "We are seeing a switch from being a brand manager to being a brand guardian and influencer. That is a very different place to be sitting."

As much as he is right, he is wrong. Attempting to be a brand guardian and influencer isn't sustainable unless the brand position comes from a place of authenticity. And for most companies, much like some people, they are not as comfortable with who or what they are as they might think.

Too many companies chase after digital tribes online, and then adjust their positions based on listening to those tribes in order to maximize their reach. The tactic, and it is a tactic, aims to create a package that appeals to a broad spectrum of prospects without considering that the contents might be more important to the consumer than the packaging.

That's not to say packaging isn't important. Packaging is important, but it requires some self-imposed constraints to ensure the packaging matches or is an extension of the contents. Nobody wants to open a diamond box and discover a rock. And most people would pass on opening a rumpled up newspaper, even if it contains a diamond.

This was the genius behind Gary Dahl's pet rock in the 1970s. It never needed to apologize for what it was. It was a rock and said so right on the outside of the box. It doesn't get more authentic than that.

And, as a result, pet rocks didn't need brand guardians or influencers. Dahl would have only needed those if he was trying to make the pet rock something other than what it was. Brand guardians or influencers, on the other hand, are most often charged with protecting the image of a company against the opinions of others, especially if those opinions are different, which is the opposite of authenticity.

Wasn't that the lesson Southwest Airlines once taught us? They didn't have to convince people or apologize for a boarding system that resembles cattle herding. They simply stated the organized chaos was reflected in the price rather than make claims it was a better boarding solution. Authenticity is demonstrated.

Tuesday, December 1

Opting Out: American Greetings


"... but what if people don't want to opt in your content? Wouldn't it be so much better to ask them to opt out? What do you think?" — Valeria Maltoni

Maltoni already knows the answer to the question she posed on her much more substantive post "Lists, Permission, and Content Marketing." American Greetings Corporation does not.

In 1996, at about the same time American Greetings launched its first site, AmericanGreetings.com, it also launched Egreetings.com, and Bluemountain.com, concepts that were designed to capture consumers from different demographics. The classic marketing strategy seemed to be working. Between the three sites, the company boasts two million paying subscribers.

To help put that in perspective, the subscription rate for Bluemountain.com is $15.99 per year. However, to really understand the presumed success of the mom and pop vignette e-card shop identity propped up with American Greetings cash, you have to look below the surface and under a few rocks. It does not rely on quality content as much as sleight-of-hand marketing.

The enrollment process requires customers to provide all payment information prior to receiving a "free" 30-day trial. If you have any concerns, BlueMountain.com borrows the VeriSign Secured brand and Better Business Bureau (BBB) brand, pointing consumers to this BBB page.

However, if customers search the BBB on their own, BlueMountain.com leaves a different impression. The BBB processed a total of 301 complaints in the last 36 months (from people willing to take the time over $15.99). And of those complaints, only 198 were closed in the last 12 months. In fact, the subscription trap scheme was so disingenuous, the BBB contacted the company in April and sought cooperation in addressing the underlying cause.

The company responded in May, promising changes to be implemented by June. The BBB took the company's response in good faith, never realizing that American Greetings didn't fix the problem but rather elongated the process. No follow up by the BBB has occurred. So we followed up.

The American Greetings Subscription Trap Scheme

This morning, I received notification that BlueMountain.com would extend my membership for another year, at the new rate of $15.99. I originally subscribed to BlueMountain.com on a trial basis to evaluate its system and, like many consumers, failed to opt out in time because there was no prompt that the trial membership was expiring. No worries. I decided to stay with the system a year, promptly forgetting about it until receiving notification this morning.

To ensure that you enjoy uninterrupted access to the heartfelt cards your friends and family have come to expect from you, we'll continue your eCards Membership for the next year at $15.99 as your current eCards Membership was scheduled to end on 12/15/2009 00:00. It's automatic -- we'll simply use the payment method we have on file, unless we hear from you. The charge will occur on the date of your expiration noted above.

It went on to say that if I wanted to cancel my membership, I could find the instructions in their Help section or simply click on the link. It seemed easy enough, even if I had to retrieve a long-forgotten password. Here is what the Help section said:

To request a cancellation of a subscription, please contact our membership support center by calling 1-888-254-1450, Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. until 8 p.m. EST

Since customers outside of the U.S. and Canada are allowed to cancel online, I decided to submit an online complaint and cancellation request anyway. Within minutes, BlueMountain customer support sent me notification that said "For security reasons, we are unable to process cancellation requests via email," which was followed by Terms of Service outlining customer obligations.

The explanation defies logic.

American Greetings wants consumers to believe that an online service enrolling members online and accepting payments online cannot accept membership cancellations online for security reasons. But more than likely, American Greetings wants to prevent cancellations. And if there is any doubt, the call confirmed it.

Customers hoping to cancel their memberships are greeted by an automated recorded call service with voice recognition technology. My first thought was that the technology belongs to a union, given the set hours of operation.

My second thought was that it is disingenuous that the recording requires a membership number, last name, and the original phone number to verify the identity of the caller. (BlueMountain.com doesn't tell customers to have any of this information prior to calling.)

If you miss any of the questions or if you do not speak slowly enough for the machine, you cannot proceed or cancel your membership. If you do answer all of the questions, your name is likely added to a marketing list that will be sold at some later date. We suspect that to be the case because once you answer these questions, you are transferred to a live scripted customer service representative who has to verify the identity of the caller.

The scripted customer service representative then asks for your membership number, last name (to which she verifies the first name), and a mailing address before asking why you are calling. Except, the customer service representative is not interested in helping you. She has a script to read.

The script is designed to prevent your cancellation, offering a reduced subscription rate or reward. And, even after the cancellation is confirmed, the representative asks you to hold for a bonus offer. A bonus offer for canceling? As tempted as I was to play along for this post, even I couldn't justify wasting another five minutes for what seemed like a 20-minute process.

Twenty minutes is longer than most customers will sacrifice for $15.99. American Greetings knows it.

Does The American Greetings Scheme Pay Off?

It's a valid question given the brand value. How can American Greetings, even if it is hiding behind the BlueMountain.com brand, justify the considerable risk associated with a subscription trap scheme for $15.99 per year? Or, perhaps more appropriately, was this the model Jacob Sapirstein, a young Polish immigrant, envisioned when he set out to achieve the American dream with ambition, ethics and hard work?

That seems doubtful. It doesn't even seem to be what shareholders expect since the company's first public offering in 1952, but it does seem to fit the pattern of progress since Zev and Jeffrey Weiss were entrusted to oversee the varied brands in 2003.

Since 2004, American Greetings seems to have headed in the wrong direction, delivering an increasingly diminished return when compared to the S&P 400 and its own self-defined peer group. Last year, in fact, the company experienced a net loss of $227.8 million. It was the worst performance in the last five years of diminishing performance.

If there is an e-card for karma, someone might consider sending them one with a bit of marketing advice. Q: Wouldn't it be so much better to ask them to opt out? A: Only if you want to follow in the footsteps of what used to be one of America's best-loved and most trusted greeting card brands.
 

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