Wednesday, August 31

Opting Out: How Important Is Privacy?

PrivacyDanny Brown's recent rant about Klout could not have been better timed. The company, like many analytic-based companies, makes money tracking consumer behavior and they do it whether you want them to or not. And they do it at the peril of their own industry.

On Monday, Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan consumer advocacy organization with offices in Washington, D.C. and Santa Monica, Calif., called the self-regulatory privacy program created by online advertisers a failure on the same day it begins.

The advocacy group outlined several areas where the self-regulated program fails to address consumer concerns for a comprehensive "do not track" option. According to the advocacy group, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) fails on several fronts.

Current online privacy failures, according to Consumer Watchdog.

• Consumers are not notified before tracking begins of how and why they are being tracked.
• Consumers can only "opt out" by clearing cookies, and then their opt-out choice is cleared.
• Companies are currently not required to participate; only 11 percent of advertisements do.
• Enforcement is limited to the FTC, but not state attorneys general or individual consumers.
• The elective opt-out program does not currently apply to mobile devices.

"Consumers have no more control today than they did yesterday over whether their information is tracked and collected by companies online," said Carmen Balber, Washington director for Consumer Watchdog. "This industry program is another example of the failure of self-regulation to protect consumers from unwanted monitoring of every move they make on the Internet and their mobile devices."

According to Consumer Watchdog, the only recourse is action to be taken by Congress and the FTC. Consumer Watchdog did not address other tracking companies such as analytic-based companies that collect data and then sell the information to companies, marketers, and anyone hoping to target consumers with perks.

One of the most recent surprise participants in targeting is Stephen King. King is allowing an advanced ebook copy of his new book Mile 81 to be distributed to targeted people. The irony is King recently launched a Green Party talk show on two of his radio stations, claiming to be a little bit left. The Green Party is against Internet targeting without opt out.

The split between public and private activities online.

Consumers have growing concerns about privacy issues, primarily because of continued abuse. On one hand, they have every right to be. We seem far, far away from the original FTC direction.

On the other hand, people are generally too free with their information online. The latter story talks about kids, but adults share more than kids on any given day. And what they don't give up normally, they're willing to give up for an incentive.

What do you think? Is it time to make dramatic changes to the amount of information marketers and analytic companies collect or do people need to come to the conclusion that we lost our privacy somewhere back in 2009?

Monday, August 29

Branding Backfires: Advertising Context

RenoirA new study by researchers from Boston College and the University of Houston finds that fine art doesn't always elevate advertising. Sometimes, it can backfire. And the culprit is context.

"Art is valued for its own sake," said Henrik Hagtvedt, a marketing professor in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. "If brands are associated with art in a tasteful way, consumers will accept and even appreciate it. But as soon as the artwork is viewed as a mere product-relevant illustration, it is demoted to the status of any other ordinary image."

Hagtvedt and colleague Vanessa M. Patrick, a professor of marketing at the University of Houston, conducted three experiments as part of their study. The most prominent featured paintings by the French artist Renoir on wine bottles at a wine tasting.

For one group, the bartender was coached to comment that the bottle labels featured "paintings." All of the wines were judged favorably. Another group was told that the wine bottles featured "people." With the context of "people," the wines were judged based on the appropriateness of what the people were doing in the paintings.

For example, if the label featured guests at a luncheon, the wines were rated higher. But if the painting was of a woman and child playing with toys, it was received less favorably. The significance being that the same paintings did not affect the ratings of the other group who viewed the bottles with a context of "paintings."

Product relevance and context play an important role in communication.

According to the researchers, the study reinforces the importance of product-relevant illustrations. As long as consumers are provided a context of art, it works. But when the context changes, making them aware of product relevance, they no longer view it as art.

"When people view an image as an artwork, it communicates as art and it doesn't matter whether the content fits," said Hagtvedt. "But when they start to focus on the content of the image, such as the people or their activities, then it becomes a product illustration and consumers begin to weigh whether it fits or not."

The two other experiments included illustrations for soap and nail salons. In both cases, the results were replicated. Different images caused different product elevations based on whether the art was viewed as art or illustrations.

Carrying context beyond the study and applying it to different communication channels.

The study may have lessons for other communicators, alluding to the importance of a narrowing topical content. In other words, once consumers identify a blog with a specific context, they may be less receptive to content that falls outside of that context.

wineThis could be true for blogs and social network presence. The further communicators push the content from a central context, the less likely it will be favorably received. For example, a marketing blog hoping to capitalize on Hurricane Irene can attempt to create a thin link between the context and the event. But if viewers consider the hurricane tie-in as an attempt to attract attention, the message is lost.

Likewise, social network streams that gain larger followings generally have a narrower content niche than those who use the social network channel for personal reasons. If the account begins to drift away from its context (e.g., a marketer begins talking about politics), followers will be more likely to tune them out or drop the connection.

If this is true, it makes generalist communication — a broad variety of topics — much more difficult. Whereas niche communication will have an advantage, but only as long as the niche communicator can operate within self-selected limitations.

Friday, August 26

Shocking Civil Rights: Congressman Steve Chabot

Congressman ChobatU.S. Congressman Steve Chabot, his staff, and Cincinnati police officers recently surprised constituents in Ohio by preventing them from filming a town hall meeting where the congressman was speaking (with threat of force). Eric Odom, who recently outlined everything wrong with the incident, rightly points out that the town hall meeting was a public event and held in a public place.

Apparently, Congressman Chabot forgot the oath he took upon entering office. Every congressman is required to take it.

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

Neither Congressman Chabot nor his staff ought to have asked police officers to bar phones that may record events. On the contrary, they should have defended the right of those in the audience to film the event. Likewise, the police officer ought to have considered his oath as they usually include "I will preserve the dignity and respect the rights of all individuals."

Explanations offered by the police officer included that he was doing what he was told and that freedom of the press does not include citizens. It is equally disturbing to think that any police officer, whose duty it is to protect and serve, would not have elected to protect the rights of the those filming the events as opposed to the request of the congressman or his staff.

After all, freedom of the press is not confined to journalists but to anyone who publishes, including citizens who attend public events.

Sure, there is always debate over what constitutes "the press" in the courts. And some people, newspapers included at times, have tried to distinguish themselves above citizens. However, there are several cases where the Supreme Court has already made it clear.

“...necessary to define those categories of newsmen who qualify for the privilege, a questionable procedure in light of the traditional doctrine that liberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer who uses carbon paper or a mimeograph just as much as of the large metropolitan publisher who utilizes the latest photocomposition methods.” (408 U.S. at 704)

Further, as noted by JRPOF, the Supreme Court went on to observe that “freedom of the press is a ‘fundamental personal right . . . not confined to newspapers and periodicals. It necessarily embraces pamphlets and leaflets . . . . The press in its historic connotation comprehends every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.’” (quoting Lovell v. Griffin, 304 U.S. 444, 450, 452 (1938)

Without question, it seems to me, this easily extends to anyone who would film such an event and potentially publish it on YouTube despite dissenters who argue that freedom of the press extends only to a privileged few. In fact, what concerns me about such opinions is that when rights are limited, they cease to become rights. They become privileges, which are significantly different.

Ergo, privileges are granted and subject to being taken away. Whereas rights are different. They are inalienable. Had the founding fathers intended something different, they might have called the first 10 amendments the "Bill Of Privileges." On the contrary, the U.S. Constitution would not have been ratified had individual rights not been enumerated.

Public criticism convinces Congressman Chabot to rethink video.

According to Chabot spokesperson Jamie Schwartz, cameras will be allowed in the future. However, the spokesperson also defended the action, saying that the cameras were taken to protect the privacy of constituents. Using such flawed logic, no public discourse would be allowed to be recorded by anyone.

Likewise, anyone who thinks the blunder is a Republican one ought to think again. Ignorant elected officials from both parties (and other parties for that matter) demonstrated lapses of memory and common sense in the face of criticism. It wasn't long ago that Democratic leaders thought to censor Twitter.

But this is also why it remains vital that people are vigilant to protect their rights over their party affiliations. If we don't, then politicians will likely burn up individual rights from both ends. Good night, good luck, and have a great weekend.

Wednesday, August 24

Thinking Divergent: Divergent Education

ShovelsWe've all been there. (Agency people more than most.) You enter a meeting with a brilliant idea and, inexplicably, some people can't see it. In fact, if the thinking is divergent enough, most of them won't be able to see it. They've been programed not to.

In advertising, it's where all those little rules come from — complete nonsense that calls for the company name to always be in the headline, five bullet points to accompany every ad, or never starting a sentence with "And." Of course they can't see a creative concept beyond the rules they've added to their road map of success.

Most of them have had divergent thinking trained out of them years ago. And that's a problem not only for them, but for our children. Right. The same symptom that prevents some clients from buying a campaign or an investor failing to find the next Apple, is the same challenge being faced in education. Most students are being taught reactive regurgitation.

Reactive regurgitation, better known as rote memorization, still has mainstream appeal in a world that requires more and more divergent thinking for success. For evidence, you only need to look at some of the most successful companies created in the last 20 years. Almost all of them were created with divergent thinking — user interfaces for computers, touch screen phones, search engines, digital newspapers, expensive coffee, social networks, shoes you can't even try on before you buy them.

There are hundreds of them. And we celebrate most of them. We celebrate them because they are the most unlikely success stories, even if we still apply the same rote rules to dismiss others who have something equally unique all over again.

The model of success is programmed to fail.

Sometimes we can't help it. Most of us have been programmed to approach life much like our education was laid out for us — reactive regurgitation, which is best described as a singular unified reaction to something on sight.

For example, much like the video suggests, baby boomers were educated to believe that a college degree ensured employment. Most of us know it helps, especially with organizations that require them in order to minimize the number of applicants. But degrees are not guarantees. Nothing is guaranteed, even if the political climate sometimes suggests citizens might expect this or that. Besides, given the right circumstances, anyone can pursue a degree. Equally true, anyone can come up with an original idea.

But we don't want to believe that, do we? From the way most people buy and sell stocks (with the rise and fall of the market) and the expectations placed on instructors at a university (kids want bullet lists to memorize) to the way politics is boiled down into two equally unpalatable choices (vote on this or that) and even people's own sense of self-worth as it is attached to various labels (smart or dumb and big company or little company and startup or blue chip) — all of it can be destructed into rote theories that imprison people to constructs from the 1800s.

And for whatever reason, we want to believe them even if history continually proves that the opposite is true. We were programmed, and most of us want to pass this programming on to our kids.

A model for success might is just as likely to be no model.

What I like best from the presentation of Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned education and creativity expert and recipient of the RSA's Benjamin Franklin Award, is that he suggests we reverse the assembly line mentality of the current system and begin to pay attention to nurturing individual potentials. Maybe, he suggests, instead of teaching kids to see one possible answer, we teach them to see many possible answers — the same kind of thinking that has driven us forward as civilizations.

Ergo, Einstein could have never conceived the theory of relativity by simply following the groundwork laid down before him. Van Gogh would have never become a celebrated artist had he only colored inside the lines. Apple would have never turned a corner if it had believed that the touch screen was an unobtainable dream.

But even more importantly for children, such divergent thinking is vital for future success. Why? Because such thinking provides an opportunity to excel in not only the thing you have learned or done, but anything we happen to approach. It removes the answer "I can't" from our vocabulary.

Where I might add on to Robinson's thinking is that it is not just our education system that abandons divergent thinking. Entertainment choices do much the same. Gamers are rewarded for mastering rote memorization, with success related to perfecting what worked last time. Cable programming might appear to be more diverse with 1,000 channels, but children are equally likely to settle on fewer shows than their predecessors because they can record every episode and watch them all over again and again. The sameness is almost startling; and they are rewarded for it.

If we want to break away from our current trajectory, both teachers and parents might start rethinking education. Rather than pushing children down the path of sameness, we might be better off pulling them up the path they've already chosen (and away from entertainment designed to hypnotize them). But then again, that in itself is probably too divergent for most people. Maybe.

Monday, August 22

Rethinking Engagement: Facebook

FacebookMichael Scissons' recent column about the 22 percent drop in Facebook engagement between consumers and brands ought to be a wake-up call. Brand engagement isn't always sustainable because most brands are thin topics.

And as Scissons points out, the problem isn't very likely to be Facebook. It's the pages themselves.

Most brands are tired, driven by managers who either aren't engaged themselves or try to force engagement on others. Some have told me that they feel like they have to. If they can't demonstrate a steadily increasing number of customers jumping through hoops, their bosses or accounts start to think that they are failing or, more commonly, something else is.

How to maintain engagement without over communicating.

When engagement falters, chances are the people who liked it are suffering from brand fatigue. They might have brand fatigue because of under or over communication. And good network managers ought not to sweat it.

It's during these slower times that managers can reassess what they are doing and whether it is still aligned with the mission of the company and stated objectives of the network presence. They might also think like humans too.

Social media has an oddity about it in that even those people who play at calling for human businesses tend to forget they too are human. They start thinking of themselves as tribal leaders, experimenters, or even shepherds. They see their jobs like playing a video game, one that requires them to rack up numbers that no longer have names like Bill and Ted and Sally and Hannah. Instead, they have a bunch of followers, fans, or whatever labels happen to be assigned to their circles.

If you've ever worked in social media, you know it's true. But you can see it as a consumer too. If the brand thought of you as Bill and Ted and Sally and Hannah, then they would already know how engaged you may or may not be. They might appreciate that talking about toothpaste isn't an activity you intend to do daily. And you can't bring yourself to like every post or comment and make a purchase during every sales event. It's just not humanly possible.

How to rethink engagement on consumer terms.

Good network managers don't seem to have as many challenges. There are a number of pages that almost always seem like they are on a steady incline in all areas — reach, engagement, and promotion. Generally, these are managers who appreciate engagement and influence aren't measured by the number of likes, shares, or retweets.

Engagement is a two-way street — like real friends with mutual interests. Even if you don't see them for months, you can always pick up where you left off as if nothing ever happened. Ergo, we might "like" the page of a hotel before we stay there but don't need engagement from such a page as much as we just want to know it still exists the next time we fly into the same town. Maybe engagement sometimes simply means you're easy to find when you're needed.

Friday, August 19

Walking Off: Christine O'Donnell Bails On CNN

Christine O'DonnellAs difficult as it is to put politics aside on political topics, they still make for great public relations puzzles. This one is offered up by Christine O'Donnell, who bailed on her CNN book interview after Piers Morgan asked the former Delaware Senate candidate her views about gay marriage.

To be fair to O'Donnell, despite Morgan's apparent politeness in the clip, the interview was more aggressive than most people know. Morgan had previously played clips from O'Donnell's past, including one where she once said she dabbled in witchcraft. He also brought up the MTV "masturbation sin" episode, priming her to become more emotional before moving in for a kill.

From CNN's point of view, raising questions about witchcraft, masturbation, and gay marriage, are "fair" because O'Donnell discusses religion in her book. (Besides, Morgan asks every Republican that question, recently Gov. Chris Christie and Mitt Romney.) On the other hand, it also suggests an agenda. Discrediting O'Donnell and others makes for great entertainment.

The real life reactions to this clip are generally mixed. In reading the comments piled on various media outlets covering the story, people are all over the map. Some will misconstrue this as a win for O'Donnell because enough conservatives and independents give her a majority on the walk off. Here's a rough summation of where people landed.

People with liberal leanings say it reinforces their belief that the Tea Party favorites are nut jobs. People with fiscally conservative leanings say that it's indicative of a liberal media afraid to talk about fiscal policy. And neocon Republicans, which are different from Tea Partiers, mostly lament that this illustrates why such personalities embarrass them.

Independents on the other hand are largely split, with varied opinions that are all underscored by a message that the media and politicians might wake up to — they actually want to talk about fiscal policy and the economy as opposed to fringe topics. Ergo, they are growing increasingly restless over polarizing social issues when the economy is in the foreground.

Still, that only provides background for the story and a thumbnail sketch on how people are reacting. Let's talk about the truth.

Is there ever a good time to walk off an interview?

Yes, but this wasn't one of those times. The public relations handlers botched it. O'Donnell obviously wasn't prepared, given that the line of questions Morgan had prepared were exactly what ought to have been anticipated by her publicist.

More importantly, there was a better counterpoint for O'Donnell, one that I think might have resonated with all parties. It goes something like this ...

"With all respect, Mr. Morgan, I think you just touched on exactly what is wrong with the state of our country today. People are unemployed, many are losing their homes, and the declining stock market is threatening retirement for millions. Yet, you want to talk about religion, masturbation, and sexual orientation. I think your priorities are confused. I wrote a book that is largely about fiscal policy and I think your viewers might agree that religion, masturbation, and sexual orientation — while important at times — take a back seat to knowing whether you are going to put food on the table tomorrow."

Anything Morgan would have pressed on after a statement like that, would have seemed foolish and trivial. But instead, her handlers prompted her to end the interview, with one of them even stepping in front of the camera. It's hard to take seriously.

The state of media relations and on-air interviews today.

The facts of media engagement are among the simplest, yet amazingly difficult, to master. While the media is allowed to ask any questions they want (even if some pretend agreement was reached prior to the show), interviewees are also allowed to circle back to whatever they want to talk about, provided they do so with tact. Obviously, no one has taught O'Donnell how to do it.

Likewise, while media personalities are allowed to ask the same question over and over, every interviewee ought to know that media personalities look foolish each time they ask the same question. In other words, let them ask and ask, at their own peril.

Interestingly enough, O'Donnell ought to have the gay marriage question down, whatever her views are. My guess is that she is soft on the issue because it rubs against four conflicting moral codes among four different types of Tea Party sympathizers and, possibly, two conflicting values of her own — a government that stays out of other people's personal business and preserving the definition of marriage according to religious beliefs.

Personal feelings or thoughts aside, I think the whole gay marriage question ought to be scrubbed. There are civil unions and religious unions. The state can neither bar nor force any church to adopt or prevent same sex marriages without any such law (either way) being an affront to the First Amendment. Maybe O'Donnell should have said that instead of catering to what she "thinks" her crowd wants to hear.

She might be surprised how people would respond if someone would just take the time to apply reason. And the media might be surprised too, if they would stop catering to their own sensational reporting styles and look at it objectively.

Incidentally, I did ask Piers Morgan where he stands on gay marriage via Twitter. And despite making himself part of the story, he declined to answer.

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