Friday, May 13

Moving Forward: Success As A Verb

“Success is a journey not a destination. The doing is usually more important than the outcome.” — Arthur Ashe

Sure, you’ve seen the quote used often enough (usually twisted and unattributed) that it borders on cliche. And it might seem out of place for someone who tends to be outcome focused. However, it doesn’t make the concept any less valid. Success works better as a verb than an adjective.

I had a discussion with my son the other day. Although he is only 12, he wanted to begin some type of physical fitness training.

So I gave him a schedule suitable for his age. But he almost didn't commit because the first few days surprised him. He wasn't as strong as he thought he was and had to reduce the weight related to some exercises. It was discouraging, he said. I'm weak.

I encouraged him not to give up. He was already succeeding because he was moving in the right direction. Everything else is just a matter of time and commitment.

A few days later, he found that the exercises were getting easier. And with every day he succeeded in completing a schedule of sets, he felt a sense of accomplishment (and was impressed by early results). I feel stronger, he said. His muscles tighter.

So, I used his discovery as a teaching opportunity. I mentioned the Ashe quote, but in a different context.

“No matter where you are in life, all of it is nothing more than a temporary state of being.”

In other words, it doesn't just apply to fitness. It applies to everything. Weak; strong. Fat; fit. Poor; rich. Burning water; celebrity chef. Struggling hack; brilliant author. Eager entrant; respected professional. Unread blogger; popular publisher. So on and so forth.

Almost every label you can dream up is nothing more than an adjective that takes a snapshot of the place where you are, without considering the place you're moving toward. And as such, they don't matter all that much.

I suggested that my son picture two extremes in his mind on a mile-long line. Imagine where he was on that line. And then imagine imagine moving toward the extreme he wants. Once he did, I told him to erase it all and focus on the movement in the direction he had picked. That's all that matters.

Let's face it. Most people never reach either extreme destination. And if they do, their time there is only temporary. A best-selling author only retains the title until his next book. A boxing champion eventually gives it back. This year's best actress isn't necessarily the same one who will accept the prize next year.

What's more important than adopting the snapshots as labels is continually moving in the right direction at a comfortable pace. Pace is important, but only because people generally work on several dozen goals at once. (No one can set the highest pace for all of them they eventually want.}

The secret to success is never thinking you’ve achieved it.

While it might come across as a paradox, most people who are successful find themselves striving for some higher or seemingly unreachable benchmark. Meanwhile, people who say they are successful are usually on their way down, perhaps already having enjoyed a brief moment of weightlessness after being shot up into the air with the full force of 4 Gs.

success2Imagine what would happen to my son a few years from now if he set some benchmark of success based on how much weight he could lift. If he stopped working out after reaching it, it wouldn't be long before he wouldn't be able to do it again.

In other words, success as an adjective isn't a place you stay. It's a temporary state of being while we are continually moving in one direction or the other.

At first, my son thought this sounded a bit discouraging. But then might find it liberating. If he wants to build strength, the act of building it makes him successful. That will never change (unless he gives up or moves in the other direction), making the verb more powerful.

Whereas the adjective is a snapshot, success as a verb is a journey. And knowing this, he doesn't have to think of himself as weak (he's not anyway, given his age) nor afraid of what areas need more work than other areas. All that matters is he is getting stronger every day and I wasn't only talking about fitness. Success is a verb in anything we do.

“I run on the road, long before I dance under the lights.” — Muhammad Ali

Wednesday, May 11

Listening To Experts: Or Social Media Intellectuals?

smart guyAlthough a recent Hoover Institution video, Peter Robinson interviews Thomas Sowell, had political overtones, it also inspires some questions that fit for social media. Are the experts that your company is listening to "experts" or "intellectuals" and why does it matter?

If you ask Sowell, your company might be cautious listening to "intellectuals," people whose end products are only ideas. It might be worthwhile to consider other intelligent people who produce end products like vaccines or buildings or campaigns and programs instead. The difference between the two isn't only in what they know (or think they know) but it's also a matter of attitude and accountability.

The latter is one of the first distinctions Sowell points out in the interview. Intellectuals do not have accountability to their ideas whereas people who execute ideas are frequently held accountable. The reason for the exemption is obvious. Intellectuals can fault the execution. They can fault the data drawn upon to make their conclusions. They can fault unexpected events.

The concept makes for a compelling argument, especially when it's moved to a new field like social media where there are few experts and many thought leaders. It might even be safe to say that some people are operating within the sphere with nothing more than ideas or, more specifically, opinions — ninjas who are so unfamiliar with a sword that they still struggle with their butter knife at dinner.

Five Warning Signs That You're Working With A Social Media Intellectual.

• The belief that their knowledge of things far exceeds their experiences.
• The notion that superiority in one field transcends into superiority in all fields.
• The willingness to provide advice without having the benefit of consequential knowledge.
• The over-reliance on studies, surveys, and statistics without looking at individual people.
• The unwillingness to rigorously review data that might run contrary to their own conclusions.

These types of behaviors abound in social media. Some social media experts tell executives how to run a company. They have ideas related to political policy. They make a living as consultants without ever managing a campaign (beyond their own). And they draw conclusions based on a singular study. And social media people search for validation more often than truth.

It doesn't have to be social media people, of course. The entire communication industry has a tendency to over reach into topic areas where they have no experience or even consequential knowledge.

I remember one "expert," for example, who suggested an ice cream company make whatever flavors people could dream up (and then convince them to sell it) without ever considering the operational nightmare of cleaning out the machines in between every new concoction. Suffice to say, it was an intellectual daydream and not even a very good one (and that's without mentioning all the problems associated with nut allergies).

ideaDon't get me wrong. It seems to me that intellectuals can be very useful, especially if they dream up stuff that other people do not. But any company hiring them as consultants has to vet every suggestion and rigorously research the contrarian views.

Why? Because at the end of the day, unlike the intellectuals who think about it, the people who actually do it will be held accountable. It's especially true when such advice begins to drift away from social media and into human resources, customer service, production, pricing, loyalty programs, how your shoes look with blue pants, what your spouse might like for dinner, and where your kids should go to school.

Sure, you can ask their opinion on all that stuff if you like. However, opinions from intellectuals — especially those propped up by popularity — are exactly what they sound like. They are opinions, and they might even be opinions of lesser value than non-intellectual experts who happen to be immersed in the business of doing. Or, at minimum, doers will be well equipped to vet.

Monday, May 9

Advertising Obesity: Are Marketers To Blame?

scaleIf you thought that the United States was the only country targeting advertisers and marketers as the cause of childhood obesity, you'd be wrong. Australia has it out for chocolate and junk food too.

As proposed, the national blueprint would join aggressive anti-obsesity legislation shared only by Sweden and Quebec. Not only does the legislation regulate junk food advertising to children, but it kills chocolate-based fundraising drives in schools.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the blueprint would specifically limit television ads during certain times and ban all advertising across email, text messages, movies, magazines, school fundraisers, and public transport.

One study suggested that as much as 84 percent of the public supported the idea that "children should be protected from unhealthy food advertising."

In the United States, there have been similar efforts to curb childhood obesity, with most marketers attempting to make voluntary changes. For example, cereal companies have reduced the amount of sugar in their products.

The CDC reports that approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents, ages 2—19 years, are obese. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) breaks the numbers differently. It says 10.4 percent of American children, ages 2 to 5, are obese; 19.6 percent, ages 6 to 11, are obese; and 18.1 percent, ages 12 to 19, are obese. Three children in five are overweight.

However, almost all studies to determine obesity is based on body mass index (BMI), developed in the 1800s. It tends to overestimate body fat in people with a more muscular build. Ironically, BMI does not actually measure the percentage of body fat despite being used to do so in most government studies. It might even promote malnutrition.

BMI flawsBMI was only adopted as the result of Ancel Keys' efforts to popularize the measure in 1972 (he also marketed a specific type of diet). In recent years, Keys' studies have been criticized. Likewise, it wasn't until 1998 that the U.S. adopted World Health Organization standards and dropped the BMI obesity rating from 27.6 to 25. When that happened, 25 million Americans went from normal/overweight to obese.

A better measure might be a waist-to-height (WHtR) ratio. This measure tends to be more accurate for athletes, especially body builders, who have a higher percentage of muscle and a lower percentage of body fat. It also helps women who have a "pear" rather than an "apple" shape. A WHtR under 50.0 percent is generally considered healthy.

As a personal illustration, I score as borderline obese on a BMI scale, but the target waist-to-height (WHtR) ratio matches exactly where I am. If I attempted to reduce my BMI, I would look gaunt and force starvation. One inch off the waist would be a balanced solution. There's a reason for pointing out the discrepancies..

Maybe marketing and advertising isn't as evil as people would have you believe.

While it is clearly good news that manufacturers have reduced the amount of sugar in cereal, the reduction of advertising to children doesn't necessarily correlate to changes in their diet. In fact, Kate Carnell, chief executive of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, pointed out that aggressive bans on advertising junk food in Sweden and in Quebec, Canada, have not worked.

How can that be? Technically, advertising to children has no real effect because children are generally powerless to take action. They need parental assistance to obtain excessive amounts of unhealthy products. In short, advertising is effective only when children do not understand the intent of advertising (to sell product) and parents are incapable of setting effective boundaries.

bikingAdd two more pieces to the puzzle. When Britain faced similar questions about childhood weight issues, it found that children expend about 600 kcal/day less than their counterparts 50 years ago. And, children today are also subjected to more "anti" unhealthy lifestyle choices.

The latter is especially concerning because "anti" campaigns actually undermine their own messages. Take anti-smoking commercials aimed at youth as an example. Every time they are exposed to the advertisement, they are forced to think about smoking. Ergo, when you tell children not to do something or not to eat something, you implant an image in their mind of them doing exactly what you told them not to do. It ought to be part of parenting 101.

If you want to bring about a positive outcome for kids, banning advertising isn't the solution. It might even be just the opposite.

• Appreciate that the studies many governments use to indicate obesity are flawed; avoid labels.
• Educate your children, early on, that the intent of advertising is to sell them something; be skeptical.
• Teach your children that setting boundaries is not a parent-child conflict; say no and mean it.
• Encourage healthy behavior (exercise, activity) over anti-advertising messaging; show them.
• Reduce access to stationary activities, e.g., television time and computer time; stress fitness.

If parents can take these actions, there won't be a need for overreaching regulation. More importantly, your children will remain healthy, and treats as an occasional reward or opportunity to have fun together over dessert won't have any impact whatsoever. Moderation and will power is an effective life lesson whereas focusing on scarcity or sacrifice predisposes misery.

Friday, May 6

Rethinking Education: The Parental Role

studentsA few weeks ago, I wrote a trio of posts revolving around education. They focused on immersive education, student expectation, and system solutions. Never once did I mention parental obligation. And several people said I ought to have. But I didn't. And it was intentional.

That is not to say there isn't a parental role. But I have mixed feelings about the increasing role parents are "supposed" to play.

On one hand, there is a clear need for parents to insist — demand — a change. On the other, there doesn't seem to be much point in sending children to school if the obligation of educating them falls to the parent anyway.

From an idealistic standpoint, schools are the educators and parents provide oversight. From a practical and pragmatic standpoint, there is a need for parents to become more involved because a failing system means someone has to be accountable. And when it comes to our children, the buck stops with us as parents. So the question is answered in two ways.

The Role Of The Parent Reformer.

Whether you have children or not, take some time to watch Waiting For Superman. The film lags in places, but still provides a primer for what is being lost.

Visit General membership is free, but there are opportunities to make donations. If nothing else, will keep you apprised of what is happening in the school systems, including some of the less effective policies such as favoring seniority over effectiveness when schools have to cut back.

Become as involved in the school as possible. Depending on the school, it might be worthwhile to join the PTA. However, closer to home, we found the local PTA was less of a cooperative between parents and teachers and more of a cooperative between parents and teachers' unions. Even on the national level, the PTA has become politicized, saying it only supports charter schools if they accept the "positions and principles of the National PTA." Enough said.

As an alternative, parents can make direct connections with the teachers and principals of the school on their own. Many parents are sometimes concerned that if they critique an ineffective teacher, there will be retribution. However, it's simply not true. In a worst case scenario, you can demand that your child be moved.

SupermenAs a parental reformer, the time invested can make a difference while keeping the responsibility and accountability of education on the school. Educators and administrators do have a tendency to listen to squeaky wheels. Be squeaky. It's important for two reasons.

First, sooner or later, children outpace parents in terms of the subjects they study. Students won't be able to rely on their parents in college. Second, not every parent is capable of picking up the educational slack, e.g., educational success should not be dependent on whether or not a single parent has to work two jobs.

It would be worthwhile for parents to have a psychological shift in how they perceive education. Younger parents, especially first-time parents, tend to get too caught up in seeking teacher-school affirmation that their child or children are smart and well-behaved. Instead, the emphasis, even early on, ought to be on accountability because every child has the potential to be "smart " and socially responsible. It's the schools' and teachers' responsibility to ensure the potential isn't wasted.

The Role Of The Parent Educator.

While I maintain that the role of education ought to be the responsibility of the school, it would be dishonest not to recognize that parents are becoming more burdened with education. I had a conversation with my mother, who is raising my niece and nephew, about education. And she doesn't recall having to invest nearly the same amount of time in my education as theirs.

Specifically, unlike when I attended school, the children are being sent home with homework they are not prepared to do. In some cases, they mention that their teacher did not have time to cover it in class or, at least, enough for the students to fully grasp the problem.

Baloney. The steps in early education are straightforward. Give students some foreshadow of what they will learn (advanced material with practice problems), show them how to do it (in-class instruction), ask them to do it with oversight (in-class assignment), ask them to do it on their own (homework), and then go over those areas where a majority of the class struggles.

While the teachers ought to be following these steps, parents have to be more reactive if they do not. In terms of homework, parents do the most good if they ensure an environment for study (no television, distractions), review the work, make sure they understand the concept, and then check the work after the child completes it on their own, requiring them to find the solutions for any missed. (Never do their homework!) Of course, this only works if the parent can understand the homework.

Beyond providing oversight — making sure your children understand homework, are turning in assignments, and are maintaining acceptable grades — parents who want to be involved in their child's education need to find ways to augment their education. It's not easy, which I can illustrate by example.

My son started struggling with reading in the second and third grades not because of his skill level as much as the subject material he would choose. He couldn't connect with the books. And after I read a few, I could appreciate why. They sucked.

educationSo, I decided to guide him toward a better selection (only to find out most of the books I knew were not on the AR list). Undeterred, we scoured an online listing looking for high-rated books that touched upon some of his interests; about 20. From those 20, he chose five based on their summaries. His reading immediately improved, even though we had to prod the school to order the tests that coincided with the books. It seems they only order tests for some AR books.

Where the fiction selection paid off beyond meeting school requirements was in discovering related nonfiction interests. For example, his interest in Greek mythology (which in turn opened up history). While we didn't go further, that historical context could have easily opened up art and writing assignments. In short, it helped create an immersive education structure.

For my daughter, things will be a bit different. After considering our options, we decided to enroll her in a private school, starting in kindergarten. Two interesting facts about the school. First, they have an immersive educational format like the one I advocate. And second, while they encourage parental involvement, they accept full accountability for education without relying on parents to augment their education.

It makes me wonder. Why aren't public schools doing the same? But more importantly, despite the examples above, the primary areas of focus for parents are best placed in teaching children social skills (respect for others), the value of education (self-respect), and a love for learning (quest for knowledge).

That will be the foundation that propels them, more than any hands-on eduction. Does that make sense? Although parents are forced to be more hands on for pragmatism, the best thing we can teach our children is the desire to educate themselves. Because if we fail at that, then any educational prodding is merely a Band-Aid until they aren't ours to prod anymore.

Wednesday, May 4

Marketing Public Relations: Truvia

SteviaOn the heels of becoming the number two sugar substitute in America, with a 12.8 percent share of the retail sugar substitute category, Truvia released a "study" confirming that "U.S. moms are already buying (or interested in buying) products made with the Truvia® brand for the whole family, including their kids."

Yes, there is some oddity in the language. But let's lay the groundwork.

The "study" was a survey (conducted by the company) of 2,417 primary grocery shoppers, U.S. moms ages 18-59 with children ages 1-18 in the household. It was fielded in October 2010. According to the findings:

When moms were asked about potential products that could be made with the Truvia® brand in categories such as dairy, ready-to-eat cereal, confections, and beverages, the findings were similar across all product categories (sic):

• Half to two-thirds of moms who are current product purchasers in these categories are interested in products made with the Truvia® brand.
• These moms also indicated they would purchase these products for the entire family, including the kids. 90% of moms would purchase juice drinks and 89% would purchase ready-to-eat cereal made with the Truvia® brand for their kids.
• Even moms who currently don't buy products in certain categories were interested in buying products made with the Truvia® brand and said they would buy these products for the entire family.

The intent of a dual-pupose release and why they don't always work.

Since being introduced to the market, Truvia faced some skepticism as a sweetener because of the chemistry and unconfirmed reports that the plants are genetically modified.

In general, genetically modified foods are accepted in the United States more than most countries in the world. But what stands out about this one, is the amount of attention being given to the side effects. (Proponents argue that it is on par with any other food allergies typical in a large public.)

Whether there is any substance to either claim is up to science to decide. My interest lies in whether the public relations efforts of Truvia are on par or have they turned a corner. In this case, the story is that Truvia has surpassed Merisant's Equal® (aspartame) for the past 16 months and the 52-year-old brand Cumberland's Sweet'N Low® for the past 12 weeks. (Source: ACNielsen Food/Drug/Mass+Wal-Mart, 4 weeks ending 3/19/11.)

So, why would Truvia mar the facts with vague pullouts from a survey, further complicating the communication by making statements such as "half to two-thirds?" They obviously know what the numbers are. They just didn't release them. If anything, the release makes them more suspect because the public relations and marketing teams are either beating the numbers into submission or attempting to oversell the study.

Five tips for releasing a study, especially without a third party.

• Always include the raw numbers. While it's generally acceptable to round in the release (almost half, more than half, etc.), the difference between roughly 1,200 and 2,000 of 2,400 is a huge discrepancy.
• Always include some methodology. In this case, giving the the readers some indication of the questions asked and/or whether or not these mothers had knowledge of the possible side effects would be helpful.
• Avoid vagueness. According to the writing, the company is bullish that "even" moms who don't buy certain products (dairy, cereal, confections, or beverages) are interested in the product.
• Make it clear that the full study is available; include a direct link to the study where possible. In this case the company merely pointed to the website, which did not include the release along with its listings.
• Never oversell a study. If the facts from the study are solid, let the journalists draw their own conclusions, keeping any "guidance" confined to the quotes. True, understaffed publications aren't likely to investigate nowadays but it still pays to pretend they might.

The entire release is bizarre, but no more bizarre than the entire story revolving around Truvia. There are two odd story tracks revolving around the slick award-winning campaign.

TruviaThe first is that Truvia is a success story. Truvia rebiana is already used as an ingredient in over 30 food and beverage products today, including Glaceau Vitaminwater Zero, YoCrunch 100 Calorie Packs, Kraft Crystal Light Pure, and Minute Maid Premium Pomegranate Tea. It also seems the release was embargoed as the company had pitched several publications (without the study), with Fast Company picking it up. (Truvia's Test: Can Diet Sweeteners Go Natural?) Along with this success story is the possible conspiracy theory of why the primary plant was banned from the U.S.

And then there is the other story. While the markers of Truvia have made efforts to become more transparent, it is manufactured by Cargill, which made the toxic ten list in 2008 despite some heavy-handed greenwashing on the Truvia site (the company pledges to make it better by 25 to 50 percent by 2015). Of course, it is also odd the FDA had no interest in allowing Truvia in the U.S. market until it teamed with Coca-Cola.

The net sum is that Truvia has had to participate in significant public relations efforts since deciding to make a play for the U.S. market. It has obviously won many of those battles, even if the FDA hasn't "approved" the product (it filed a letter of no opposition to rebiana, which are the leaves of the banned stevia plant). So why would it punt with an ill-conceived press release?

The only plausible answer is that the company is feeling some push back after some early success in the market. Specifically, some manufacturers aren't ready to recreate their recipes with Truvia, and the excuse they kick back at Cargill is that moms haven't approved it nor are they demanding it. And, despite the spinning, the survey seems to confirm it.

Monday, May 2

Begging For Conformity: A Social Media Killer

Being DifferentThere's a secret about social media that I thought you might like to know. You'll never get anywhere doing what experts tell you to do.

This is true for Facebook. And it's true for Twitter. It's certainly true for blogs. And it's also true for Digg, StumbleUpon and Reddit. Heck, it's true for any social network or social media tool that your company has its eye on. If you follow the leaders, you will eventually lose.

There Is No Formula For Everyone To Follow.

It's not really about social media per se. It's about human nature. The more things become the same, the more people want someone to drift away from all the sameness. It's why music and art tend to flow in cycles. Ergo, Nirvana opened up grunge until grunge became saturated. Minimalist art had people buying two-tone canvases until Andy Warhol pushed up pop.

It happens in almost every industry. It's even the primary reason newspapers and television news started to struggle. It wasn't so much that social media swept the scene as much as it was that they were reporting on the same things, day after day and year after year. News needed a fresh perspective and social media just happened to be the method of delivery.

Social media experts are doing it now too. As the number of experts has increased exponentially, there are proportionately fewer who don't jump on the the most obvious topical bandwagons (and then sometimes lament that someone "followed" them without credit). Seriously?

Of course everyone is spinning the five-step crisis communication solution to the tragedy du jour. Of course everyone is covering the Delicious shift. Of course everyone wants to talk about the iPad 2. Naturally, most people want to discuss the demise of MyBlogLog. Oh wait, not that one. Some people are embarrassed to mention it.

The point being is that most bloggers and social networkers, commercial or otherwise, have a tendency to follow in everyone else's footsteps. It's what they know. They've been watching the sameness factor of traditional media for too long. It's rubbed off on them.

Nobody wants to be the one person caught not covering something. So it stands to reason that the slowest high-speed chase in history locked every channel into live coverage of a white Suburban on cruise control. Yawn.

There Is No Social Media Formula, Results May Vary.

I've worked on about two dozen social media accounts. Not one of them has been the same, even if they used some of the same tools (sometimes they did not). But that's because I appreciate that social media doesn't drive effective content management. Strategic communication drives effective content management — finding the balance between the core of a company (mission, vision, values) and some objective. (And none of it has to do with eyeballs.)

Sure, there are people who would like to tell you differently. Public relations, for example, likes to add formula pushing the message. Social networks like to follow each other, until the social network eventually fails. And social media experts like to add relevancy to scoring systems that aren't relevant. (Um, Empire Avenue is just a flippin' game, not something that needs to be gamed.)

Geoff Livingston distinguishes the approach between machine gunners and garners. Chris Guillebeau frames it up as a cure for a starving artist. And Julien Smith packages similar advice in a way that only Smith can do.

The secret to social media isn't knowing what everyone else is doing so you can do it. It's knowing what everyone else is doing so that you can do something else.

The Better Way To Build A Social Media Effort.

About a year ago, I was contacted by a specialty contractor who was savvy enough to appreciate that his startup might have a competitive advantage with a social media program, but I passed on the job. The reason I passed was because he sent over a dozen or so links and asked that I create a social media program based on others that he "liked."

Broken ProgramsOf course, I didn't say no outright. I only said no after he insisted I develop a social media program that would undermine his company's core and primary objective, and was predestined to be an exercise in boredom.

You see, as a specialty contractor, he wanted to demonstrate that his firm was creative and different (core). He also had an objective of attracting architects, designers, and creative general contractors — people who are often brought in on the projects first and then refer or bring in people like him (objective).

My solution was different than what he expected. I suggested rather than be like everybody else (push content about his company and opinions), he might want to develop content about the people he wanted to attract. In other words, his program would be underpinned by the great creative work of his prospects.

"But," he frowned. "That might mean giving exposure to my competitors too."

Ho hum. I just didn't have it in me to write marketing copy that masqueraded as social content. So, I suggested he contact a firm that was much more formulaic or attempt to do it himself. I'm not sure what he decided, but I know nobody reads the content.

Why would they? Just like the dozen or so programs he liked, his company has a blog that is nothing much more than a serialized "about me" page. You know, just like everybody else, which speaks volumes about his company. He's just like everybody else, no matter how many times he says otherwise.

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