Wednesday, September 14

Imagining Social Networks: The Futures Company

According to Alex Steer, writing for The Futures Company, social networks might be losing their way. He has an excellent point.

"'s a shame that so much of the conversation around the future of social networking focuses on technology. In the last few years we've heard that real-time access, mobile apps, geolocation, near-field communication and other innovations would transform social networking. To some extent they have: many of the changes over the last decade have been technology driven. But what's often missing is the simple, human question: how do we want to interact online, and how is this changing?" — Steer

He's right. The emphasis on technology sometimes forgets the real driver of the social networks, the very people who participate in them. In fact, one could argue that the failings of social networks often leads to the content generated about them.

Consider Mitch Joel's Myth of Reciprocity post. Or Anastasiya Goers' Tips for Social Media Time Famine post. Or Ian Chang's Google+ Circles: Inverted Personal Privacy Dilemma post. All three of them have an unlikely common ground.

While they all read like they are about the failings of people (shortcomings and solutions), the real failure is found within the network. And more than that, they indicate how people are so used to bending to networks (and telling other people how to bend) that we've forgotten technology is meant to serve and not make us subservient.

Six Critical Decisions That Consumers Are Making, From The Futures Company. 

1. Scale. The benefits of a large network or the intimacy of a small network.

2. Privacy. The convenience of use and access or safeguards of private data.

3. Specificity. The investment of time on some networks or divided time on many.

4. Pervasiveness. The choice between being always on or to access when we need them.

5. Utility. The perception of seeing networks as places to play or as a professional tools.

6. World view. The choice between reinforcing our habits or challenging our preconceptions.

The Futures Company is largely right in placing the focus on these apparently contradictory pivot points. Their brief, called Status Update: The Six Decisions Shaping The Future Of Online Social Networking, is worth checking out. It may even help some people see social media differently.

In fact, it isn't even until page 34 that it loses me a little. Almost immediately considering all the pivot points, it slips a bit backward for marketing purposes, suggesting marketers learn to bend better. There is nothing wrong with that per se, except that maybe nobody has to bend anything except the tools.

Isn't that the real usefulness of six critical decisions that consumers make? People do not want to accept that choosing this means losing that. They want both at the same time and not necessarily one or the other, subject to change. And that leads to the real question on my mind.

How do we build a social network flexible enough to change with the whim of consumers? 

Nobody has done it yet, not really. If they had, social media evangelists wouldn't have the need to rush and build a huge network only to eventually declare they miss the intimacy of having a small one. No one would worry about social media time famine because activity wouldn't feel like a necessity, scored and rated. And privacy wouldn't be as much of a concern, even if the latest effort really aims at convincing us to give up more of it.

Because these aren't the failings of participants. They are the failings of the technological design created with an addictive allure meant to keep us captive as long as possible. And in many ways, it's the traditional media model all over again. There must be a better way.

It seems to me that an on-demand network could consist of intimate, interconnected spheres existing in a larger environment, allowing us to slide back and forth between smaller personal connections and large public gatherings. It would certainly give us an opportunity to go out and challenge our preconceptions while still having a place to feel secure among like-minded people.

And in that regard The Futures Company is right. By paying more attention to people and less attention to technology, we start to see a more fulfilling future for social media, with less bending.

Monday, September 12

Marketing Shift: Consumers Want Experiences

Although conducted in the United Kingdom, a recent survey from Experian CreditExpert captures a sentiment in the United States too. When men and women in their 40s or 50s are asked what dream they want to fulfill, they aren't choosing extravagant purchases like sports cars, designer clothing, or cosmetic makeovers. They're giving answers more aligned with what the Futures Company called a Darwinian Gale.

• 70 percent said that they would like to travel the world
• 46 percent said that they would like to learn new things
• 29 percent said that they would like a full-time hobby

Only about one in ten confined their answers to the proverbial middle aged crisis stereotypical answers like cosmetic surgery (13 percent women; 3 percent men). No one listed purchasing a new sports car. And designer clothes were not part of the equation. In short, material possessions have fallen off the bucket list.

Consumers want life-changing and self-affirming experiences. Does your marketing measure up?

The study affirms consumer advertising observations from a week ago, at least in so far as the middle aged consumer is concerned. The survey reveals men place work-life balance as a top priority (to presumably seek new life experiences); women want new life experiences as a top priority.

That is not to say that having the monetary means to fulfill their goals is being discounted. About three-quarters of those surveyed felt that their financial situation was the only thing holding them from realizing their dreams. Sixty-nine percent said a sudden windfall is all it would take for them to begin making life changes, including making new friends or changing their careers.

But that is not the only change. It seems people are thinking of these dreams more often. A recent USA Today poll found more than 34 percent of the population is thinking of their goals on a daily basis; 26 percent weekly; 17 percent monthly. Only 21 percent are thinking of their goals rarely or never.

What's really holding consumers back from realizing life-changing and self-affirming experiences? It might be your marketing message.

Is it any wonder that software, books, and videos are among the highest selling products on the Internet (26 percent). Airline tickets and hotel reservations are second (21 percent). Consumer electronics and hardware are third (16 percent). Or that Kindles, iPads, acupressure mats, and two specific movies (Avatar and Inception) made up the top five best-selling products on Amazon. Or that SAS, Boston Consulting Group, Wegmans Food Markets, and NetApp (listed among the top five places to work) all have customer experience-centric offerings along with an equally strong internal brand alignment.

Not really. Don't sell lipstick, sell the places you can wear it. Don't sell apps, sell what they can do. Don't sell the price, sell the experience. Don't sell a network, sell the strength of the connections. Don't sell cars, sell where you can take them. Don't sell the salary, sell the vision, camaraderie, and security.

Friday, September 9

Exceeding Potential: What My Son Could Teach Yahoo!

There aren't many days that go by where someone doesn't ask what's up with Yahoo. It happens so often, the quip might even make a great tagline. Yahoo! What's up with us?

As a company, everybody there seems miserable. You can't really blame them. The next phone call you receive from the chairman of the board might be to fire you. Not that anyone was surprised. Plenty of people said Carol Bartz was the wrong captain to helm the sinking ship. And even when she did the right things, most people didn't notice.

They're looking to change the world, while longing to change themselves. But that's not the order in which things happen. If you want to change the world, change yourself. But before you can change yourself, you have to know where it is you want to go. You have to have to have a vision.

What my son could teach the next CEO of Yahoo. 

My son is 12. And like many 12-year-old boys he has limitless potential. He also has an aversion to working hard at something to reach or exceed that potential until he really has to work hard at something, which usually requires a vision and an incentive (the actualization of that vision).

That all changed recently. He has been meeting and exceeding his potential for weeks now, and he is happy to do it. So what changed?

I shared an observation with him during our recent trip to Denver. And the observation was the curiosity of the least likely source: two different Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents.

The first agent greeted us with a smile, checking our identification against boarding passes before (jokingly) asking him why he and his sister (age 5) didn't have IDs. I'm glad she did. All children tend to become impatient after waiting in a long line, especially when they know it's only going to be the first of many.

Her brief conversation with them broke up the monotony. Not just for them, but her too. You could tell. She wore her friendliness like a badge on her face. And her pleasantness was immediately infectious, even for the people directly behind us.

The second TSA agent my son interacted with wasn't as pleasant. Just as my son had walked through the metal detector, the agent's partner, who was feeding the bins into the X-ray machine, had stepped away. And because he did, my son's shoes and electronics waited patiently at the opening.

The TSA agent huffed at him and told him he had to go back and push his own tray through. (Why she didn't ask the people behind us to do it, I'll never know.) Her decision resulted in several awkward moments as my son traveled against the stream.

Meanwhile, the agent huffed and grumbled the entire time. And just like the infectious pleasantness that spread across rank and file passengers the last time, so did the apparent nastiness of the second agent.

The lesson here is much bigger than a communication tip. 

After we returned from vacation, I recanted the experience to my son on the same day he demonstrated little interest in meeting his potential (or our expectations as parents). The specifics don't matter, but the conversation does.

"Did the first TSA have to be nice to you?" I asked him, setting the stage.


"So if the first agent didn't have to be nice to you, why did you think she was?" I led, even as my wife conveyed an expression of bafflement.

"I dunno."

"She was exceeding her potential," I smiled. "She didn't have to be nice to you because her job description is only to check identification and file people through. But she set a higher bar. The other agent, on the other hand, was just meeting the status quo. So which one was happier?"

"Well," his eyes lit up. "The first one. She was really nice and made people happy."

"Exactly. People who are happy tend to work toward meeting or exceeding their potential because it feels good and helps other people feel good too. So the only question you have to ask yourself isn't whether or not you want to do something but if you want to be happy."

"Okay," he said. "Can I go on my computer now?"

Sometimes you have to have patience as a parent. I told him he could, and hoped for the best.

The next day, our conversation paid out in dividends. He did everything expected of him, without ever being asked, and a few other tasks as well. When he was done, I asked him how he felt and he was happy. We all were.

Of course, for my son, he already had an advantage over Yahoo. He already had a vision and knew what to do to get there. Some people, including Bartz, never do. Sure, they do a lot of things but never really have a destination that they can be proud of. Even her goodbye to employees said as much.

The choice of whether to get by or exceed expectations is always yours. But the real question to ask yourself, no matter the job or task at hand, is whether you want to be happy or a just another Yahoo.

Wednesday, September 7

Making Friends: Develop Empathy Online

After a relatively slow start, blogs (weblogs) started to gain popularity about 12 years ago. And the more generalized term — social media — came a few years later, incorporating several forms of interactive communication on the Internet. Generally, it includes forums, weblogs, social blogs, micro blogs, podcasts, photographs, videos, and virtually anything else you can find or dream up on the web.

Most communicators understand the tools. But a surprising few understand the connections they create.

And there is probably no greater area of confusion for them than what constitutes a "friend." Even those that have been in the space more than decade stumble over it, attempting to separate the meaning with artificial criteria, as if their definitions can somehow strip away all semblance of empathy.

Some might even argue that followers aren't friends, even if friends might follow. Others remain content to define them by proximity, with "friends" being reserved for those people you actually meet whereas "online friends" are merely slivers of relationships. Yet others manage to create distinctions between those they woo on behalf of their companies and those they don't.

Why marketers continue to struggle with friendship.

I understand the challenge many marketers face, especially those who eventually rack up followings six digits deep or more. It seems unlikely and improbable that all those people are friends. Indeed, they aren't.

But by the same token, maybe they are. Or, if they are not, maybe they could be. Friendship is a relatively loosely defined term. According to some definitions, it is a person attached to another by feelings of affection and personal regard. We can tighten it slightly, requiring it to be mutual for "true friendship," but the standard definition doesn't require it.

In the last couple of weeks, there have been events that have challenged communicators over the term "friendship." One is largely insignificant, but curiously relevant. The other is significant, with a potentially disastrous message despite some deep and well intended thought. (I truly appreciated the effort as well the progression of the latter post.)

I'm going to the avoid the stories behind either, except to say that both touch and don't touch people in remarkably different and profound ways. To me, both fall on either end of the spectrum of what constitutes online friendship and are tied together by how fragile humanity can be.

Individual communication demands empathy and the risk of friendship.

Blogging and social networking to some degree is an art form, I think, in that like music and art, it demands the creator to be equally comfortable speaking with people on a scale of one to one and one to many at the same time. It's undeniably dissimilar to journalism for this reason, which is often confined to a one-to-many medium. (Blogging and networking can be too, but I'm skewing to the nonprofessional majority who know better in this case.)

Any time you communicate with another individual — where there is an exchange of ideas, thoughts, and experiences — there is the risk of friendship. There is a risk of friendship, unless one of the individuals has preset their criteria: That they cannot be friends with someone until they meet other people close to that person, visit their home, or sit face to face. And there is a risk of friendship because our minds do not naturally distinguish the difference between online friends and real life friends unless we force it to do so.

I call it a "risk of friendship" because so many people start blogs and open social media accounts without any foresight that they might finds friends. Some are even dead set against it.

They want an audience, but not necessarily a collection of people that they might become attached to by feelings of affection and personal regard. Or maybe they are employed to make connections on behalf of companies, only to discover accidental connections that go beyond the scope of the work (much like they do in offices every day). Or maybe, well, there are infinite numbers of reasons, motives, and agendas.

Marketers tend to approach social media with reservations against personal connections. It's not all that dissimilar to 7-Eleven clerks ringing up Big Gulps for people. I know, because I did that job while finishing my degree and simultaneously working at an agency years ago. The hundreds of people who breeze in and out of a 7-Eleven aren't all that different from "followers" who carry with them short bursts of communication left at the register.

We smile. We wave. We move on. Well, not everyone.

Friendship doesn't consider proximity, presence, or circumstance.

Unless the clerk has a predisposition against making friends, sooner or later the regulars become familiar. You might talk about the news. You might talk about cultural differences. You might share something personal. You might swap music (cassettes back then). You might stumble into each other at the pub. You might have a meal together. And somewhere along the way, it becomes more difficult to distinguish them from those other people with whom you shared a history with since high school.

Now some people might insist that this plays out differently online. But it really doesn't. I've seen it happen within groups of people who set out to save cancelled television shows. I've seen it happen among professional colleagues. And I've seen it happen between consumers and marketers during a campaign. It happens exactly the same. It's not an illusion.

People become attached to another by feelings of affection and personal regard, even if the other person doesn't know it or expressively conveys the same in return. And it seems to me that it's expressly important for marketers working in social media to understand this as they attract more people than average, and accumulate many more people who perceive them as friends (even if they don't share the sentiment).

Oversimplified, there are two ways to approach friendship online. If you don't have empathy and want to limit who you are open to becoming friends with, you can convey it with a statement or demeanor. You know, just like real life, offline.

Conversely, if you are open to making friends in this space, then just be yourself while making sure every decision you make is checked against your sense of empathy. In other words, never discount someone as a friend just because they are online. Everyone perceives friendship differently, but kids do it better than adults. Give them a few hours around a campfire and someone will find a lifelong friend. They don't see any distinction between online and offline friends either, in case you were wondering. I know. I asked.

The worst thing you could do is play the middle, treating people like friends and then redefining the relationship by your actions no matter how insignificant it might seem to you. People tend to take it personally. And you're surprised when they do; it's a clear indication empathy needs to be a focus. Or maybe it's something else. Fear is a powerful motivator for some people.

Personally, I'm not keen on the alternative being proposed by others. They suggest we assume no one is a friend, especially online. And while there may be some validity in that approach, I think it requires us to sacrifice a little more of our humanity. When no one is "really" a friend, then everyone is lonely.

Monday, September 5

Revisiting PR Moments: From Mr. Media Training

Every month, Brad Phillips, president of Phillips Media Relations, picks five video media disasters and highlights them at Mr. Media Training. I've read his blog before (worth subscribing to), but was new to his media disaster series.

It's a great concept. And yet, his five worst video media disasters (all of which are political) merit deeper discussion, at least for the month of August.

Here's a recap of his picks and some additional commentary on what he might have hit and missed. And, I've included a few suggestions that could easily have bumped out some of his other contenders.

Brad Phillips' Five Worst Video Media Disasters: August 2011

5. Christine O’Donnell Walks Off Piers Morgan

O'DonnellChristine O’Donnell certainly deserved to be on the list. In fact, I had previously written some commentary about the walk off. While I agree with Phillips in his assessment that the interview was predictable and O’Donnell ought to have been more prepared, the entire event becomes a wash. Piers Morgan's line of questioning for every candidate has become boorish. And Phillips also missed the line of questioning that led up to the walk off. The sound bite that made the rounds was only part of the story.

4. Charlie Rangel’s “Pretty Girl”

RangelI agree with Phillips, and would probably move this up. While Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) was growing frustrated with the interruptions from Laura Ingraham, sitting in for Bill O’Reilly, he crossed the line with a quip that she was a just a "pretty girl." Like O’Donnell, Rangel ought to have better prepared for the format. Even when O’Reilly is on, it's not uncommon for hosts and interviewees to talk over the guest. And, for the life of me, I can't think of a single reason to elevate a gender comment.

3. Mitt Romney: Corporations are People, My Friend

RomneyThere has been plenty of discussion over Mitt Romney's recent response to hecklers. When Romney mentioned he didn't want to raise taxes on people, someone yelled out "corporations." Romney addressed it by saying corporations are people (meaning: corporations employ people, fund 401ks and pensions, and aren't all big business). It wasn't well received. Phillips might be right to include it on the list, but only as a bonus. Romney can overcome the quip as long as he can craft a more palatable way to explain the truth behind it. He also has to understand why people feel that way: big corporate executive bonuses and largely abused tax incentives.

2. Joe Biden Endorses China’s One Child Policy

BidenMost people know know that Vice President Joe Biden was sent abroad to placate China. It has led to several embarrassments, including one where journalists were literally forced out of a room before he had finished speaking. This off-script comment was another because Biden found common ground by comparing America's retirement challenges to those that China may face with their "one child" policy. This media moment is easily number one because it comes nowhere close to America's sentiment and further illustrates how agreeable this administration has become. Some things are better left unsaid.

1. Rick Perry Threatens a Public Official

PerryRick Perry's remarks about Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke were largely blown out of proportion, especially given there are plenty of respected people who said the best service Bernanke could do for our country is to resign. Steve Forbes even said Bernanke must go. Most reasonable people also know that Perry was just talking tough and not necessarily calling for acts of violence or charges of treason. More than that, I disagree with Phillips that we have entered a post-Giffords world. On the contrary, listening to Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) and others, including the president at times, such rhetoric is alive and well (sadly).

Bonus. Al Sharpton Will Much About That Will Be Committed. Or Something.

Long story short, the bonus is amusing but hardly a worst media moment. While it might be worth a chuckle, Al Sharpton was obviously teleprompter tongue tied in the worst possible way. It's forgettable despite being funny. There were better picks.

For replacements, consider Al Gore's odd comparison of civil rights leaders and climate change proponents, especially because he prepared it. Look to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) for several more prepared gaffes, including one that suggested the Soviet Union was rising along with China and India. And last but not least, Rep. Andre Carson being the newest citizen vilifier to make headlines.

All in all, Phillips did a fine job. From my perspective, he was three for five as long as we swap some rankings and recognize Morgan as boorish. Those three also have the best lessons of the bunch too: prepare for the obvious questions, trying to discredit someone over gender only discredits you, and sacrificing pride is forgettable as long as you stand firm on values.

Friday, September 2

Being Consumers: It's Not Us And Them, Stupid

"I was always more interested in being a woman first and an advertising person second." — Shirley Polykoff

This isn't the first time a quote from Shirley Polykoff resonated with me. It's not likely to be the last. The first woman copywriter for Foote Cone & Belding was as sharp as they come.

She was sharp because she didn't mind skipping the barriers between advertiser and consumer, and her advertisements had more impact because of it. There was no trick to convincing women that blondes had more fun. But she surely had fun telling the story.

Stop trying to move masses and try being a human being.

There are plenty of people who have taken to talking about human business. Most of them are full of it. One day they chat about how businesses do better when they are personal. And then the next day they talk up how it's all about target audience and sales. And then the next day it's back to being human, with hurt feelings because not everyone liked what they had to say.

Such sleight of hand is a marketing mistake. Sooner or later people will notice. But it's the same thing on a big scale too. When companies sit around in board meeting rooms talking about how they will move the sales needle or (groan) go viral, they begin to lose ground.

They're asking the wrong questions. Instead, they might ask better questions. Specifically, instead of asking "how can we sell more crap," they might ask something like Shirley did. "How can we help women feel more in control over their lives?" And then, she did it.

Women aren't necessarily asking that question today. They're asking other questions. So are men. And moms. And dads. And business people. And all sorts of other groups of people with special interests. And yet, it seems, there is a good amount of marketing today that is dazzled by its own ability to crunch numbers — consumer interest be damned.

If you want to write better copy or content, stop being a salesperson and start being a consumer.

couponThinking like a salesperson predisposes marketers to creating barriers because the initial premise is that there is an "us" and a "them," with the primary goal being that we want "them" to do something for "us." It's stupid talk, and not nearly as effective or as interesting as thinking like what you are anyway. Advertisers are consumers, albeit not very good ones because they start to believe that somehow making some clever or slick or sharable or sales pitch is more important than a product promise.

Have you been paying attention? Most people don't share silly pictures (cats and bacon) because they want attention (at least, not the majority who have no interest in becoming popular). Some do it because things seem a little tougher and uncertain in their lives and they need a diversion — 15 or 30 or 60 seconds where planet bacon or dancing cats can help them forget their mortgage is past due. Some do it because they want to feel like they're part of something. Only one percent consider it strategy.

In other words, that doesn't mean the question du jour ought to be how do we put cats and bacon into our video. It ought to be how can we make people feel more secure, more in control, more normal, more attuned to what is really important in life, or perhaps more likely to lighten up a little in the face of daily doses of fear TV a.k.a. the evening news. And how do you do it, applying it to whatever product you have (assuming it applies)?

If you're not thinking like the consumer, you're not thinking.

organic colorFacebook did it. People wanted an easier way to connect to friends, originally in college but then at every stage of life. Google did it by inventing a way to find the right information faster (something it will lose if it continues to socialize the Web). And in their own ways, Walmart, Target, and Best Buy all deliver on cheap convenience, creating the illusion that people are buying something of equal quality for less (even if it is not). It's their chance to feel normal on a tighter budget.

Sure, these examples all benefit from a foundational product or service development but existing products can capture similar success by asking and answering the right consumer questions. How does your product help fulfill the less obvious needs of the discriminating consumer? For example, Polykoff tapped into the feminist movement to be more fun than 1950s conservative but she might be more inclined to tie in home (consistency of color), health (good for your hair), and environment (eco-friendly) today.

Consider how much more effective that might be than the tactics employed by advertising-centric marketers: discounts, free samples, and sex appeal (celebrity worship). The reality is that advertisers targeting women with those tactics are competing much more aggressively in a crowded space for a thinning consumer base. Why? Because they aren't thinking like consumers.

*The trade advertisement shown would be better without the fear marketing, but they are on the right track. It's the right message, one off from in how to communicate it.

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