Monday, May 30

Reflecting On: Memorial Day

Unkown SoldierThe brave die never, though they sleep in dust: Their courage nerves a thousand living men. — Minot J. Savage

How easy it is at times for a nation to forget the significance of Memorial Day amidst the banner of a long weekend and start of summer. And yet, it is for the very losses of these fallen heroes, the men and women of the U.S. military, that we can fan the flames of our barbecues, host backyard parties, and relax in lazy wonderment by the sides of our pools.

"Sometimes she alone ensures our sacrifices, so others may live free, will never be forgotten." — Richard Becker for American War Mothers

There is a band that hails from the United Kingdom that recently wrote a song that captures the awe (and regret) that a soldier who runs away from a battle might feel about his fallen comrades. The song is The Cowardly Soldier's Lament, from a West country folk band Rocketeer. Enjoy and then remember.

If nothing else, at 3 p.m. today, please pause for a few minutes during the National Moment of Remembrance. Or perhaps, if you can find the time, listen to Taps, which was reworked as we know it today after the Seven Days battles at Harrison's Landing (near Richmond). It revised an order ceremony, which called for the signal to extinguish lights.

But again, such suggestions are only the least that one can do. There are dozens of organizations that rely on everyday citizens for funding and support. Just a few of them include America's Fallen Heroes Fund, American Fallen Soldiers Project, American Gold Star Mothers, Fallen Heroes Project, and Flowers For Heroes. Please take a minute to visit them as well as consider the meaning behind the original day.

Memorial Day was first enacted as Decoration Day by formerly enslaved African-Americans to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War. Later, Southern states held their own Memorial Days, helping rebind the common cause of this country. And in 1866 in Mississippi, Decoration Day commemorated both the Union and Confederate casualties buried in its cemeteries.

After World War I, it was expanded to honor Americans who have died in all wars and military conflicts. And it wasn't until the National Holiday Act of 1971 that it became attached to a three-day weekend. Over the years, I've lent other posts to Memorial Day, including some words of President Abraham Lincoln, a speech written for the American War Mothers, and several historic photos when there was nothing left to say. Good night and good luck.

Friday, May 27

Asking Questions: If Websites Could Talk

About Me StrategyYou never really know how people interpret information until they apply it elsewhere. Nowadays, some people truly believe that social media will eventually supplant websites entirely.

Even a post by Jeremiah Owyang about integrating social functions into websites was attributed to Altimeter and reframed as another call for the death of business websites all together. (The spin itself demonstrated the venerability of social media.) However, all of the calls for the demise of websites miss the point.

Websites won't die. But their functionality will have to change.

All that really means is, somewhat to Owyang's point, social media tools and networks will be built into websites, changing the functionality from the 5-page content template into something, hopefully, that makes sense for the people who visit the site.

That has nothing to do with social media per se. It is, however, one of several reasons some people mistake why the "social media revolution" happened. It's also why news organizations continue to grapple in the new world. And it's why some social media intellects want you to believe that you and your company and your communication are powerless (unless you hire them).

Maybe a better word for the revolution is push back. For all the advances made in the early 1990s in regard to mass media communication, there was one major setback. Mass media, and its advertising and publicity bedfellows, dominated information. Even if someone was unhappy with anything, an individual voice didn't have any value compared to the conglomerate.

In fact, the only information out there was for awhile was decided on by the people with the largest audiences — agencies publishing brochures, public relations firms pitching stories, and new media setting the agenda. There was no other choice.

Social media is the revolution as much as the revolution is choice.

choicesIn other words, if people are visiting a corporate website less, it probably has less to do with the noun "website" and more to do with the descriptor "corporate." Or, even more simply put, the reasons people don't visit or stay on a corporate website is because whatever they are looking for just isn't there.

What is there? Generally, most corporate websites are little more than an "I love me" wall, adorned with trophies, awards, and sales pitches. Sure, some sites toss in some SEO-crooked copy, maybe some runaway advertainment, and whatever website builders can sell.

If your company website could talk, what would it say?

The whole thing is rather preposterous when you think about it. A person visits a site with an expressed interest, i.e., Who can I talk to about a product defect or service problem?

To which the site responds, i.e., Would you like to play a game?

Increasingly unhappy, the person turns to Google. Who can I talk to about a product defect or service problem?

And Google answers, i.e., I really don't know, but I can tell you where all the other people experiencing product defects or service problems are going. Would you like to go? Heck yeah!

Social networks did add another choice. Who can I talk to about a product defect or service problem?

To which the site responds, i.e., Try the live representative on Facebook or Twitter.

So, the person follows the advice to find stacks of unanswered complaints, representatives who only know what the daily deal is, or an endless stream of content that might as be labeled "see more about me on my 'I love me' wall."

Two tips for more effective online content and communication.

First, erase any notion that social media and websites are somehow different and can cannibalize each other. Saying that social media cannibalizes a website is akin to thinking that in-store salespeople somehow steal sales from an advertisement in the Sunday paper. This stuff works together. (*One caveat, duplicate social media content can cannibalize each other.)

Along with erasing the notion of separation, kill the widely adopted prospect that social media and networks are feeders to the varied 200 "about me" pages on websites. (Let's be honest, every single page of a website might as well be labeled "about me.")

questionsSecond, start thinking about why people are coming to your website. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they are not coming to read "about me" pages, play games, or be diverted to a social network (unless the social network can answer their question).

They ask different questions. So if you want to build a more effective website, start thinking about the questions your customers and prospects ask most often. Then start thinking about what they might ask if they even knew to ask it. And then start considering the best methods to deliver the answers, which may or may not include Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Still unconvinced? Take some cues from some of the top websites in world. All of them answer very specific questions. Here are the top five most visited, recognizing that even networks are really websites with more functionality.

Where can I find some information online? Google.
What are my friends and family doing right now? Facebook.
Where can I find some video of >fill in the blankWhere can I find some information if I hate Google? Yahoo.
What if I need information and I'm Chinese? Baidu.

And so on and so forth. More to the point: If consumers are turning to social networks with increased frequency, doesn't it stand to reason that they do it because your website isn't answering their questions? Maybe that's something worth thinking about.

Wednesday, May 25

Testing For Confusion: Crowdsource

crowdsourcingA few months ago, Danny Brown asked a very good question. Is social media crowdsourcing making us lazy? While he was writing from an individual perspective — suggesting we search, research, and seek relevant resources on our own — some businesses might be getting flabby in how they quantify, qualify, and analyze research.

It was one of the points I alluded to while presenting an adapted version of Thomas Sowell's concept by applying it to social media intellectuals. Some people took exception to the post, claiming it was divisive without solutions for certain prattle. (Think about it.)

The lesson doesn't come from social media. It comes from marketing and community relations.

Years ago, I worked on the front end of Clark County Regional Flood Control District for an agency client. The project included one of the first flood control detention basin projects in the greater Las Vegas area. Specifically, we developed one of the community relations prototypes for neighborhoods that might be impacted (temporarily and permanently) by the necessary construction.

People who live in the area might know the name of the project. Mission Hills Detention Basin Dam is on a tributary of the Las Vegas Wash located in the City of Henderson. Its function is to redirect flood waters to prevent houses from being washed away.

Even when the initial design was being considered, it was important for the city, county, agency, architect, and construction company to receive residents' input throughout the project — ranging from which streets would provide the safest routes for construction trucks to what the 26-foot high berm might look like upon completion (since many residents would lose valued views).

What was very interesting about this prototype community relations plan was it involved several methods of gathering data from area residents so the team would benefit from a better perspective of research. One stream of input was not enough.

low pricesFrom the communication perspective, we developed numerous ways to gather input: one-on-one interviews, private suggestions ballots, selective focus groups, open forums, and surveys. Why? Because the method and the medium can sometimes turn uninformed opinion into undesirable outcomes. And I mean undesirable for anyone.

Of course, I don't suspect too many people can relate to the finer points of flood control detention basin communication. So, I've transposed some of the notes into a more consumer-friendly model.

Transforming Marketing Surveys Into Market Testing.

• Individual Trial Response. Ask preselected customers to try a product for free or at a reduced cost and then solicit their input. Often, the intent is to find issues from the consumer's perspective. Don't direct them to find problems (because they'll make some up if so directed). And never videotape the response (because people tend to provide affirmative responses on camera).

• Focus Groups. Present the product to a select group of consumers or qualified experts to try the product and discuss it. Two cautions. Watch to make sure that one or two or three people don't eventually lead the group in a specific direction. And, always host more than one session, especially if one group fixates on a specific issue. (This is also why we had private suggestion ballots; some people clam up in public.)

• Open Forums. While similar to focus groups, open forums go beyond gathering input and create an opportunity for dialogue between stakeholders and consumers. For example, if the focus group on its own concludes the product would look best in blue, then designers and manufacturers can offer that the color might have consequences — like adding $10 in price.

• Controlled Tests. One classic marketing test model is taking advantage of stores that will carry some new products for a price. While the product will generally not benefit from any advertising assistance, it could provide its first test against competitors. One caution. Controlled tests aren't really product tests on the front end. They are more likely to be considered packaging tests.

• Test Markets. Clearly, test markets are always the most beneficial but sometimes cost-prohibitive tests, which is why large companies try while medium and small companies sometimes do not. Online, it's the essence of alpha and beta testing to some degree. You do what you want to do, just on a limited scale. Then check for results.

Then, of course, there are all the rest... surveys, interviews, etc. I know most people know these methods, but the rehash sets up the point.

The more methods in play, the greater your chance is to refine the product and move it away from what's become the biggest source of confusion caused by online crowdsourcing — conversations turned over to the crowd while letting the chips fall where they may with all sorts of influences you cannot begin to guess at. It's worse than the exhibition of being a flabby business. It very likely can put your company on the wrong path.

Consider several market testing methods instead and look for similar outcomes. It's the easiest way to begin transforming intellectual thinking into tangible experience. But even then, always be cautious anyway.

Sometimes doing it right works, as it did with the Regional Flood Control District, teaching the developers that the most vocal in the community were a minority. And sometimes doing it right doesn't work, which is why there was an Arch Deluxe.

Related Posts From Around The Web.

Memo to Crowdsourcing: Grow Up by Geoff Livingston
Five Ways Social Media Will Change Journalism by Ike Pigott
Could Crowdsourcing Help Pass The Turning Test? by Brendan Cooper

Monday, May 23

Moving Toward Social Media: Now What?

now whatAccording to a recap by Smart Company, Nielsen reports that three-quarters of Australian companies fully embrace social media with as much as 10 percent of their marketing budgets slated to social media. There is some discrepancy between large and medium businesses.

The Nielsen-Community Engine 2011 Social Media Business Benchmarking Study finds that 35 percent of large companies have a stronger presence than medium-sized companies. Although smaller businesses could benefit the most, many of them do not have the time or funding to outsource labor intensive work.

At the same time, companies that are engaging in social media are social network focused. More than 21 percent are advertising on Facebook, 15 percent have a company blog, and 16 percent are using paid monitoring services. The study also showed that 43 percent of companies see social media as a way to communicate to customers, 25 percent see it as an opportunity to respond to customers, and 23 percent see it as a tool for research and insight.

Nielsen helps tie social media to the tablet e-reader market.

Part of the most recent surge in social media is clearly in the tablet market. Mobile owners use their tablets and smart phones to browse for immediate topic points, during commercials, and to make social connections to the programming they watch (friends who are watching the programs somewhere else in the country). Some highlights from the study:

• 70 percent of tablet owners and 68 percent of smart phone owners use their devices while watching television.
• 57 percent of tablet owners and 51 percent of smart phone owners take their devices to bed.

Nielsen StudyWhen cross referenced with another study by Google's AdMob, a picture starts to develop. According to the survey, 84 percent of people use their tablets for gaming (which has become increasingly social), 78 percent use it for research (searching), 61 percent use it to read news online (portable news), and (from a different study) about 52 percent use it to check social network accounts.

The study that hasn't been done yet is more qualitative, but the anecdotal evidence exists — how are people prompted to take any number of actions that lead them to a destination. It's the one more businesses would certainly appreciate.

The anecdotal evidence exists in that people search for news on their tablets when specific topics are being discussed like a new item or a new release from a band. They might follow a link of a news story from a friend on their social network (the propensity increases with every friend mention too). Or, conversely, they might ask their friends what they think of a particular news item.

The challenge that many businesses face in social media.

Businesses that take the time to have a better understanding of social media will win, but not in ways that are always directly measurable (short of benchmarking). This explains some of the results pulled from a recent Forrester and GSI Commerce study that, on the surface, takes social media to task.

Specifically, the study concluded that social media has almost no influence on online purchasing behavior. Some people mistook this study as Forrester becoming a social media contrarian. But that is not exactly what people ought to have pulled from the study.

To fully understand what is happening with consumers, businesses have to start seeing everything from their point of view. Take a fictional (but based on real life) composite of a consumer watching television with their tablet in hand. The news program flashes that a major terrorist has been killed.

Almost immediately, discontent with the linear timeline of network news, they start searching other news streams for content. And, once they have enough, they might share or see what their friends are saying on the social network.

During all of this, your company is talking about its underwear sale. What do you think about your chances to make a sale now?

sale?Exactly right. To develop a successful social media program companies have to either know when to shut up, adjust to current events, or position themselves as part of the greater community they belong to.

Ergo, just because you represent a company with 10,000 employees doesn't mean much because your company is probably only one account. And just because it is the bigger underwear sale in the history of the company doesn't mean it's the biggest news of the day. It probably isn't. But even if it is, people are more likely to visit the store next week than immediately click and buy.

The point being that investing 10 percent of a marketing budget or more into social media is smart, especially if you want a presence where people are spending more and more time. But investing 10 percent in social media isn't so smart if the underlying strategy is because you think consumers are waiting to celebrate your brand. All they really want to do is connect.

Friday, May 20

Operating Budget: How To Lose A Customer

When we returned the rental car to Tucson International Airport, we were feeling pretty bullish about Budget Rent A Car. The attendant who checked us in had even adjusted our contract because we brought the car back with a full tank, even though we had prepaid for the gas. As I mentioned before, that never happens.

Had Budget had its way, however, any savings could have been erased. Budget Rent A Car spoiled customer satisfaction by claiming we damaged the car three weeks later. You can read all the ugly details about what happened right here: It's why Budget sucks. Worse, we now loathe them and their company, with our resolve being to forgive and forget them permanently. Well, sort of.

Today, I'd rather talk about what might have happened. There are solutions on top of solutions.

Scenario 1: Assume Fault. Budget Rent A Car would have never lost a customer for life had it never sent us a claim letter. Please don't misunderstand me. Had we damaged the car, I would have paid for the repair. But we did not.

Had the car been damaged while it was in our possession, the attendant (per Budget policy) would have notified us at check in.

It is just as likely that any damage, which Budget later defined as "minimal" to the rear door, could have been done by the people who pulled up to us once the car was checked in. Or, maybe it was the attendant who had left the doors open. Or, maybe is was whomever is responsible for washing it. Or, maybe, who knows?

It's a sorry story to think that same attendant who wanted to "save" us money also tried to "stick" us with their mistake. But the solution here is obvious. Budget Rent A Car should have assumed their company, not the customer, damaged the car.

Scenario 2: Ask, Don't Tell. Conversely, maybe Budget Rent A Car wants to be operationally thorough. And upon discovering "minimal" damage to the rear door, wants to know if their customer might have noticed something.

Instead of sending an unsigned impersonal accusation form, they could have sent a letter. They could have included photos. They could have included a detailed description of the damage and asked had we noticed anything when we checked in the car.

Customer inquiries as opposed to accusations can go a long way. I practice the same resolve at my company. If an invoice comes due without being paid, we don't automatically demand copies of their bank statements. We find out if the check was lost in the mail. Of course, in this case, we wouldn't have been able to help because there was no damage when we left.

A phone call might have worked too. Paper is expensive and not always very responsible.

Scenario 3: Expedite Service. Even if the ineffective operational policy and procedure did not work, it would be prudent for Budget Rent A Car to provide a phone number that could be reached at their customer's convenience and not their own.

At minimum, even if nobody wants to work weekends at the Budget Investigation Unit and portions of their customer service department, at least give the working people enough information to answer basic questions. You know, like "What the flip are you talking about?"

The customer service crash was the worst display of general ineptitude that I've ever had the misfortune to experience. Even the customer representative who took ownership didn't keep his promise to call by noon. According to him, it took all morning to get any information from the Budget Vehicle Damage Control Department.

Seriously? I can't fathom how long it would have taken me. Is damage running so rampant at Budget that not only do they have an entire division dedicated to bilking customers, but they also have special divisional "units" to handle all of the details? Are they so busy that it takes half the day to respond to someone in their own company?

Scenario 4: Suck It Up. Budget Rent A Car accepted that they broke their own policy, admitted the customer service was shabby, and ultimately "waived the claim." Two representatives have promised to send formal letters of apology. And one offered a customer service certificate for the lies and runarounds we experienced with their staff. (I'm satisfied with the apologies.)

However, never once did the company acknowledge one of their employees or another customer damaged the vehicle. It's a small consolation, but one their customer service representative couldn't even grasp. He thought I would be appreciative that the claim was dropped.

And that's the rub. Budget Rent A Car maintains we were at fault and they are being gracious in all of their benevolence.

It's not about me anymore. It's about possible fraudulent insurance claims practices.

Since Monday, I have had several productive phone conversations. It seems that state legislators may be very interested in drafting consumer advocacy legislation for the State of Nevada.

At minimum, the legislation will require car rental companies to perform a walkaround with any customer before accepting the rental vehicle to prevent pass-on damage liability. Among other ideas, it may also include a non-insurance attribution process to ensure the abundance of car rental insurance claims do not drive insurance rates up, which impacts people who rent cars or not.

While my personal experience originated in Arizona, consumer advocacy laws also have a tendency to be passed from one state to the next. As soon as we can get a bill up in Nevada, the draft will be forwarded to legislators in Arizona and surrounding states.

As the bill passes, Budget and its parent company, Avis, will likely have to staff more personnel to accommodate, cutting into their recent profit surges. It may also help curb the recent consolidation of the car rental industry. Currently, Avis is attempting to work around anti-trust laws to acquire remaining competitors. There are only four national companies left.

Personally, I'm not very keen about regulatory oversight. But when companies "try harder" to screw customers, they earn it.

Wednesday, May 18

Sharing Passion: Patch Adams And BloggersUnite

Patch Adams
If passion can be defined as a deep, overwhelming and powerful emotion one possesses for someone or something, then compassion might be defined as the ability to impart the best of it with someone else. The feeling they experience might even be different, leaving those touched mesmerized by their passion even if they don't adopt the same fervor. But the results are the same.

It's something not all communicators consider — and yet it is the foundation that sets so many campaigns and causes apart from one another. We rally around certain brands not so much because we're soda pop loyalists, airlines aficionados, or whatnot, but because the people behind the product have an uncanny passion for it that we can't quite understand, especially so if it is something as simple as three-ply toilet paper.

Of course, this particular post has nothing to do with something as commonplace as wipes. It's about a man who became a doctor, not so much for the profit his generation assumed it would bring but with an intense passion for the people who needed his help.

Dr. Patch Adams and his uncanny ability to transform passion into compassion.

I co-wrote an article about the International Day Of Compassion this weekend, but held off on adding something here because I thought the topic deserved a different angle. Instead of being informative, the life work of Dr. Patch Adams might be used as a teaching tool for a purpose one-off from medicine and more closely aligned with humanitarianism.

Since 1991 (and before), I've been honored to have donated my time to more than 60 different nonprofit organizations at one time or another. Some still leave me with a sense of pride today and others left me disenchanted, distressed or even disenfranchised. The difference, which can easily be applied to the private sector, is where people place their passion.

Those that make me smile for the honor of service, always managed to keep their focus on whatever cause they generally supported — teaching someone to read for the first time, rehabilitating homeless veterans, helping an orphan smile, or ensuring a parent could stay in the city where their child received medical attention. There are hundreds of examples.

And then there are those that slowly drift away from the cause or sense of purpose, pouring their passion into internal or even state politics, executive and staff paycheck protection, or just wanting to be right more often than they ever do the right thing. There are a few dozens of those, thankfully not as many as the former.

ClownsDr. Adams is an exemplary model. Even when his expectations were proven wrong, he ignored any setbacks and persisted in sharing his passion, changing the world in sometimes small and sometimes extraordinary ways. And what makes his successes so uncanny is that he seldom asks for donations or volunteers but gets them anyway — even if it takes longer than he sometimes hopes.

He doesn't have to make direct asks or sales pitches or follow policies. Instead, he asks people who cross his path to share his passion — spreading humor and compassion whenever and wherever possible. He does it in a unique way too, making people want to support his dream and pursue some dreams of their own. You can see it firsthand by learning more about the Gesundheit! Institute.

But even more than that, Adams does something that few people ever do. Even if they don't make a donation, volunteer, or help him in another way, he still has made the world a better place by sharing his passion for compassion. And it still spreads.

Passion and compassion apply to communicators in the private sector.

It's the fundamental difference between social media programs that work and don't work (traditional campaigns too). Profit-driven (or deadline-driven or volume-driven) programs tend to deliver flatter campaigns, even if the short-term ROI is high.

Have you ever wondered why? The great unequalizer is often underpinned by passion for the product and compassion for the people who might buy it or have an experience. Or, in other words, I've never met someone who is successful peddling products they consider "boring" (passion) or unconcerned with each individual customer's experience (compassion). At least, no one successful in the long run.

Or, in yet other words, if you cannot communicate with passion and have the intent of compassion, then don't. People can tell. Sooner or later.

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